First a promise: this column shan’t be a rehash of my deep disappointment at the Don’t Worry Darling discourse (you can read my previous Substack column here on it if you like). Instead I’m going to do the only thing that actually, in the end, matters. Analyse the work. Jump up and down in my big boots on the burning question: is the film good?
And the answer: yes! And also, sometimes, no.
Jack (Harry Styles) and Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh) are a young, beautiful, hot-between-the-sheets (and on top of the dinner table) couple living in Victory: a sun-bleached, pastel-perfect west coast 1950s desert community. Every morning, along with the other husbands of the cul-de-sac, Jack jumps in his car and speeds away to work at the Victory Project, where he makes “progressive materials”. The wives, forbidden to ask for details on just what the fuck they do all day, wave them off, grins rictus, hemlines rising on their exhaust fumes.
Their days, the hours until the men return, are filled with dance classes, bathtub-scrubbing and window-buffing; a radio playing the sermons of Frank (Chris Pine), the enigmatic slash creepy-as-hell boss who founded their community, this utopia. As night falls, the wives - lipstick set, heels on - greet their returning husbands at the door, whisky in hand, cooked meat resting, thighs throbbing.
It’s a rich, gorgeous, seductive world built out in establishing scenes that truthfully operate as little more than vignettes to set mood and tone. But what a mood. What a tone. Under Olivia Wilde’s direction, DP Matthew Libatique’s captures Arianne Phillips’ costumes and Katie Byron’s production design with gusto. Water boil, steaks fry, coffee is poured, toast cut. Cars reverse in synchronisation. Walls close in. Perfect white eggs wobble but don’t crack.
But soon - too soon arguably, the pacing is 0-100 - the edges of the world begin to fray. The ground and walls shake without explanation, or comment. A plane crashes. Alice has visions and disturbances, her mind seemingly splintering. She asks questions that no-one wants to hear, or answer. Neighbour and friend Margaret (Kiki Layne) loses it, warning the other women of something while, er, someone tries to make her disappear.
Something. Someone. Somewhere.
For a world rendered visually with such specificity, the vagueness with which the plot is sketched is frustrating. The script’s architect is Booksmart’s Kate Silberman (who worked on a story from the Actual Van Dyke grandkids, Carey and Shane). Oh man, that Booksmart screenplay: the punch, the bite! The confidence, the nuance! Here, exposition is ladled on like thick, unsieved soup; the dialogue by turns contrived and leaden.
The working rule seems to be: show do tell. And then tell again. “Everyone is acting like I’m crazy, and I’m not crazy!” cries Alice after acting like she was crazy when she was not crazy. The foreboding is heavily signposted - and when I say heavily, I mean rigged up to the national grid and lit up like Blackpool illuminations - tension evaporating under its weight.
And yet, even with all the showing and telling and telling and telling, the narrative holes just deepen, the questions grow and the answers recede or disappear altogether. Some promising plot strands are dead ends, while others peter out and even more are abandoned. Make it make sense!
There are a handful of brilliantly compelling ideas at the heart of Don’t Worry Darling. Bodily autonomy, female desire, misogyny, radicalisation, coercive control, female complicity, late-stage capitalism, the dysfunction of the nuclear family. But just as the film gets its hands around the girth of any one of these ideas, it halts. We edge towards something truly bold, potentially radical, before retreating. Keep going, screamed the voice in my head. We’re almost there!
Just as the ideas don’t get fully off the ground, many of the performances are similarly stuck. Chris Pine and Gemma Chan (his wife Shelley) have a handful of superb scenes, but just when both bite into interesting characterisation, they stop.
And yes, OK, let’s address the elephant in the room: Harry Styles. To be clear about one thing: the camera loves him. The camera would marry him and have a school-bus full of his kids if it could (which makes sense: you don’t become the biggest pop star in the world without being up to the gills in charisma). But that isn’t enough: his character - and performance - is thin, a blank page. You could argue - especially after the third-act reveal that I absolutely won’t spoil - that this was a deliberate strategy, but the page then isn’t filled as the film ends. There’s no crack in the veneer to hint at substance beneath.
But (and this is a big but) all is far from lost. There are two formidable heartbeats pounding away in Don’t Worry Darling, keeping the hot blood circulating. The first is Florence Pugh, who turns in an electric, typically fearless performance without a scrap of vanity or self-consciousness. The second is the ambition of Olivia Wilde’s direction.
Vanity Fair revealed that Wilde gave the cast a watch-list including The Truman Show, Inception, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the original Ocean’s 11. Throw in Suspiria and Midsommar and you have a sense of not just her reference points, but vision. This is a director who doesn’t hedge, place safe bets. If there’s an easy road and a difficult one, she’s throwing herself down the dirt track. The sheer scale and aspiration in her world-building, the spirit in her big-swings, demand to be respected.
The reality is that it not only remains difficult for a female filmmaker to get a second feature greenlit, but rarer still for them to get their hands on a budget of this size (it’s a significant step up from Booksmart and it shows). And while many have been quick to point out flaws, few have been keen to credit Wilde for the filmmaking bullseyes. How does it go: male directors are responsible for it all and female directors just happen to be around, right? You cannot praise Don’t Worry Darling’s look, feel and fuck-this creative bravery without praising Wilde (oh, and she also puts in one of the best performances in the film as chain-smoking, martini-swilling fellow wife Bunny). Knockout performances from your lead actor don’t just appear, fully-formed.
If the world is right and good (*insert laughing emoji*), Wilde will make a third feature and a fourth (and there are projects in the works), the knots untangling, the vision shoring-up. There’s promise tucked inside the corners of this film. So Don’t Worry (Yet) Darling: there is (Probably) much, much more to come.
Don’t Worry Darling is out in UK cinemas on September 23rd. Going to see it? Tell me what you think of it in the comments!
White Noise with Terri White is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Great read Terri, and a lot of what I was expecting. I'm looking forward to seeing it based on stills alone tbh - the cinematography is glorious.
Finally got to see this this afternoon. Enjoyed it although the third act could have had a bit more oomph. It’s looks fantastic though - definitely needs to be seen in the cinema. Wilde could have played it safe for her second film but she definitely didn’t with this! Florence Pugh is just ridiculously talented though. Ever since I saw her in Lady Macbeth she just steals the show every time. I’m like give the rest of us a chance mate!