An erotic thriller with limp execution
Olivia Wilde has plenty to worry about.
The buzz-worthy press tour for Wilde’s sophomore film Don’t Worry Darling was packed with enough drama for another movie. From conspiracies that Harry Styles spat on Chris Pine involving a video dissected like the Zapruder film, to alleged tensions between Wilde and Florence Pugh, Don’t Worry Darling had either the worst press tour or the best word-of-mouth marketing.
That saga eclipses the movie itself, which begins as a promising erotic thriller but woefully devolves into an overcooked mystery-horror with a toothless take on gender politics, masculinity, and heteronormativity. Despite good intentions by Wilde — aided by a powerhouse Pugh, catalog-ready home sets, and stray moments of pure entertainment — Don’t Worry Darling can’t escape the creative and philosophical prisons of its own making.
Don’t Worry Darling is Wilde’s second feature after her 2019 teen comedy Booksmart catapulted the House alum into rarified air as a female director with a pronounced feminist view. It began as a 2019 Black List spec by Carey and Shane Van Dyke, with a draft by Katie Silberman that became the shooting script. In contrast to the well-received Booksmart, Don’t Worry Darling sees Wilde make an ambitious genre swing with her take on the eerie suburban satire with sci-fi underpinnings, calling to mind Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives, Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium, and Marvel’s WandaVision.
But Don’t Worry Darling is a swing and a miss. Wilde delivers an underwhelming, derivative work, with confident but half-baked commentaries on sex and gender roles offering none of the venom the material demands.
The movie centers on Alice (Pugh), a model housewife devoted to her husband, Jack (Styles). She cooks, cleans, loves sex, and always looks fabulous. They live in a manicured cul-de-sac with idyllic SoCal views where they’re neighbors to other Donna Reed wives, like Bunny (Wilde) and Dick Van Dyke husbands (Nick Kroll). Each morning the men hop into colorful convertibles in their Mad Men cosplay and drive like an armada of Hot Wheels to work. Where they work and what they do is a mystery.
But who they work for is Frank (Chris Pine), the charismatic founder of the “Victory Project,” a bubbled-off world where few are allowed in, and no one is allowed out. Equal parts comic book villain and cult leader, Pine plays Frank as if he’s fueled by refined oil, a malicious but attractive presence everyone treats with intimidated reverence. It’s a credit to Pine’s effortless charisma that Frank never gets stale, even when his sinister nature is painfully obvious from the jump.
Sadly, no praise can be spared for the other male lead, Harry Styles, whose obvious handsomeness has an inverse relationship to his screen presence. It’s an accidental but perfect summation of the movie’s themes that Pugh’s talents salvage the movie, allowing it to function at a bare minimum of competence.
Styles aside, Don’t Worry Darling starts strong. Wilde has a clear eye for table setting, carefully ensuring each piece is in place before pulling on them like cinematic Jenga. It’s easy to pick up what Wilde puts down, as Alice’s steps towards wakefulness instill enough momentum to keep audiences compelled. But as Don’t Worry Darling drags and puts too many thematic eggs in too many narrative baskets, the inevitable full reveal of the Victory Project feels more like relief than a satisfying, mind-melting twist.
It verges on spoilers to describe the central mystery of Don’t Worry Darling, even if Wilde has openly talked about incel culture and the worship of pseudo-intellectuals. But Wilde pulls her punches. She’s horrified by the psychology of unkempt neckbeards with RGB keyboards, but never commits to bearing witness to their most dangerous habits. We see insecure men exert a desperate and helpless need to control “their” women, but beyond one obvious instance, their actions are never examined, probed, or even understood. Male anger and insecurity simply exist, as natural as a reflex. Wilde is as unwilling to figure out why as she is reluctant to show it.
For all Wilde’s efforts to make a movie about impotent men and their reverence for a mythical past where gender norms were rigid, Don’t Worry Darling doesn’t plunge to the depths it should. That her movie’s limp eroticism serves no purpose other than to show off two attractive people getting entangled makes the movie’s politics all the more inert and distracted. “Behold a world where men are controlling monsters,” Wilde’s movie says. “The sex is actually pretty great!”
No better summary of Don’t Worry Darling and its spectacular efforts to be about something is found in Harry Styles himself. Amidst the messy press tour in Venice, he delivered this stirring insight: “It feels like a movie. Like, you know, go-to-the-theater film movie.” Beside him was Chris Pine and his thousand-yard stare, his disassociation captured for our amusement. Don’t Worry Darling is definitely a movie, but everything outside of it has been more meaningful and worthy of attention.
Don’t Worry Darling opens in theaters on September 23.