Amongst talks of spitting at its Venetian premiere, onset feuds, and the most troubled post-production history known to man, Don’t Worry Darling had quite a lot to be, well, worried about. The second directorial feature from Olivia Wilde (the first being the widely well-received Booksmart (2019)) has been marred with controversy and speculation since day dot. It would take a truly epic film to rise above the ever-vicious Hollywood rumour mill and cement its place as a film worthy of its own merit, not that of its off-screen gossip.
Unfortunately, this is not that film.
Don’t Worry Darling began its life as a 2019 spec script by the Van Dyke brothers, which eventually made its way onto the Black List– an annual list of screenplays that are largely well-liked but haven’t been picked up for production yet– and later that year Booksmart screenwriter Katie Silberman was brought on by Wilde to do rewrites. From the scattered pieces left in its wake online, it looks like Don’t Worry Darling went through four major stages; the original Van Dyke script, Silberman’s rewrites, a (rumoured) poorly received test screening, and finally the finished version released to the public. This isn’t altogether unsurprising considering the final product does feel like something of Frankenstein’s monster, four separate entities, all interesting in their own right, but compounded together into nonsense.
However, Don’t Worry Darling was never going to wow critics and garner unanimous praise. Its baseline premise– a supposed paradisical suburb has mysterious and potential nefarious goings-on beneath the surface– is a story we’ve been told since time immemorial; The Stepford Wives, Vivarium, Gaslight, or Rebecca all have similar plot beats and rely on the same tropes and character dynamics. That’s not to say that meant that Don’t Worry Darling was always dead in the water, lord knows that the film industry is considerably dependent on these same-but-different films to keep the cash mills flowing, but what it does mean was that Don’t Worry Darling’s challenge was never going to be telling us something new but rather showing us something we’ve seen before but showing it stylishly. Which I must say, it does do phenomenally.
The set design made use of the Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs, the costuming is a visual delight, and the soundtrack– between score and 50’s pop music– all work to create an extremely well-crafted and incredibly enjoyable mise-en-scéne. The first 45-minutes were some of the most enjoyable I’ve had in a cinema in a while, and I couldn’t help but feel that critics had been far too harsh on this well-meaning Truman Show-Esque psychological drama. And then it all began to fall apart.
We’re introduced to Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) in the idealised suburb of ‘Victory’. The husbands (which amongst Styles include Nick Kroll and Asif Ali) work for Frank (Chris Pine) the leader of the ‘Victory Project’ and de-facto Mayor of Victory. The wives (including director Olivia Wilde as Bunny and Sydney Chandler) stay at home to cook and clean. The dream! Or so one would think until one of the wives, Margaret (the criminally underused Kiki Layne) begins to act strangely, forewarning the wives of not belonging and becoming increasingly harmful to herself. Though Alice at first dismisses Margaret, she soon comes to see the truth in her statements. This is all well and good, except Margaret is there for all of three glorious scenes before she’s completely dropped.
It’s around this time that Don’t Worry Darling starts to buckle under the weight of all that it’s trying to be. While the first third of the film is solid and cohesive as you can get, the latter half of the film spirals into abject nonsense– trying to cram as many half-hearted “themes” and oblique cultural metaphors as it can possibly fit, while still managing to not resolve major plot points in any rewarding or even comprehensible way. The “plot twist” is not necessarily poorly done but rather so shoved into the final 30 minutes of the film that we’re given all of three minutes (a generous estimation) of explanation before it’s onto the next thing, leaving massive plot holes in its wake.
But to be honest, for all my critiques of this film, what is perhaps most disappointing was the way this film was marketed. Olivia Wilde went to lengths to speak of the “female pleasure” supposedly inherent in the film, bragged about the fact that “men don’t come in this film” and the multiple (and I would argue extremely unnecessary) scenes of cunnilingus. In all actuality, when taken into context, all these “female empowerment” scenes Wilde so delighted in were scenes of abject rape.
Don’t Worry Darling tried to be everything– erotic thriller, psychological drama, romance, an indictment of the Jordan Petersons of the world, period drama, a manifesto for women, star vehicle, an exploration into incel culture– that eventually it ended up being nothing. Though many have condemned the media circus that ensued following its premiere and release, I regret to say that Olivia Wilde fell on her own sword. So blinded by the positive pop-culture sound bites that came from individual aspects of the film, Wilde followed the same fate as her film: boasts full of sound and fury, but ultimately signifying nothing.
Written by Mia Eve Sherry