It’s hard to write both reasonably and responsibly about Olivia Wilde’s new movie, “Don’t Worry Darling” (which premieres Friday), because the movie takes on much of its significance through a plot twist that happens halfway through, which I pleasantly surprised and that I do not want to spoil. (I’ll be careful, but lecturer warning.) Set primarily in California in what appears to be the late 1950s, the film makes extraordinary use of production design, dramatic staging, and narrative detail to enhance its own realism and make the action eerie, eerie, elusive. In addition, the film’s self-defeating subtleties and grand dramatic reveal serve a greater purpose: the portrayal of oppression in a run-of-the-mill, past America is reminiscent of the country’s contemporary political pathologies. “Don’t Worry Darling” serves that purpose with a cleverness to match its focused sense of outrage.
Florence Pugh plays Alice Chambers, one of a group of women living in Victory, a planned community in a remote expanse of a California desert. Her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), like all the husbands of all the women she knows, works for the seemingly defense-related Victory Project, which – like the city itself – is built and run by a sunny, charismatic man named Frank (Chris Pine). ). But something doesn’t seem right, starting with the city’s chilling uniformity. On the cul-de-sac where the Chamberses and their neighbors live, Jack and the other men, including Dean (Nick Kroll) and Pete (Asif Ali), pull out of their driveway at exactly the same time each morning, driving away in an identical fashion. by their wives, Alice, Bunny (Olivia Wilde), and Peg (Kate Berlant), then pouring into the desert with other cars owned by other men driving to the same workplace, somewhere in the nearby mountains.
That uniformity suggests authoritarianism. Women don’t work; they are not allowed to drive and instead can use a free trolley (the “Victory Bus Link”) decorated with slogans urging passengers to secrecy. (“What you hear here…let it stay here.”) It all brings them all to a ballet class led by Frank’s wife, Shelley (Gemma Chan), who chants soothing mantras about “control,” “symmetry” and ” During the day, Alice listens to a radio at home that buzzes with the voice of a male announcer, encouraging listeners to ‘sacrifice’ and ‘loyalty’ and promising to ‘protect’ them. The cheerful Frank warmly gathers his employees and their families a garden party at his lavish home, where he offers “progress” to “expell chaos”, refuses a return to society as a whole (“We stand our ground!”), and has his followers confirm their purpose in Victory: “The change the world!”
Part of Victory’s allure is its cool sense of style. Its inhabitants live to the rhythm of the needle drops of the era, surrounded by a curated series of design elements that have so systematically eliminated the blunt and the kitschy that it immediately looks retro – a living museum of the moment. If “Don’t Worry Darling” offered nothing but his sense of design and his performances – especially those of Pugh, Wilde, Berlant and Chan, which are delicately calibrated between serious expression and parodic gesture and diction – it would still be a sensory delight, not least because Wilde, in collaboration with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, embodies the physical world of the film in similarly inflected and stylized images. (One of the most enticing is a matching pair of circular tracking shots, one around a cluster of husbands, the other of wives.) Still, Victory’s svelte beauty is inextricably linked to his relentlessly gendered and rigid social order. Like the other women, Alice spends her days scrubbing the house (which, in architecture and furnishings, is in a clean and sharp style that would have been cutting edge commercially modern at the time), shopping (for equally sharp clothes, in a department store where the women have bottomless bills that are never due), and prepare for her husband’s return home by cooking a sumptuous, daily multi-course dinner and getting ready to welcome him. Unlike their neighbors, Alice and Jack don’t have kids and like it – because they have a heart-poundingly hot marriage, as evidenced by a quick sexual encounter (the internet celebrity), where Jack stalks her between the dishes on the dinner table just after he comes home from work.
Still, there are problems in this candy-colored Formica paradise. The Cassandra is Margaret Watkins (KiKi Layne), one of the few black people in Victory, who, after being away for a while, has returned with her husband, Ted (Ari’el Stachel), a Project employee. At Frank’s company garden party, Margaret interrupts the team building festivities: ‘Why are we here? We shouldn’t be here” – and Ted drags her away. In the department store, Alice’s friends gossip about Margaret’s violation of company rules and the consequences that followed. Margaret reaches out to Alice to express doubts about the order of the city; shortly after, Alice witnesses a tragic incident. Victory’s men, in red uniforms (the local equivalent of men in white coats), interfere, while Jack and a remarkably evil doctor (Timothy Simons) gaslight Alice, who then goes on to investigate on her own and discover Frank’s authority and the official stories. challenges that is part of it. By doing so, she risks Jack’s career and much more; her intrepid quest turns the drama into a thriller.
Some of Victory’s positive traits—such as his anachronistic racial and ethnic integration and lack of inhibition over sex—suggest little more than a mask for his control schemes. But even before she was startled by Margaret’s existential question about this isolated community, Alice, by nature, seems out of alignment with its rigid arrangement. She seemingly compulsively disrupts the routine of programmed happiness: benign, as when she cracks one egg after another on the floor, and terrifying, as when she tests her mortality by wrapping her head tightly in plastic wrap and struggling to breathe while she pulls it off. (At times the film leans towards the grotesquely shocking imagery of horror movies.) She has stark hallucinations and allusive inner visions that the film portrays in detail.
Those visions, which link Alice’s own bodily confusion to a clearly audiovisual one, evoke an inner disorder, or rather, a question mark over the urge for order. They link bodily functions, such as blood flow and the contractions and dilations of the iris of the eye, with black-and-white dance scenes that mimic the geometric and symmetrical images of production numbers from Busby Berkeley’s 1930s musicals. I am a Berkeley obsession and have long felt that his intensely rhythmic dance formations are a cinematic vision of biological functions and social conditions that give rise to the anarchic individuation of personality and desire. But Alice’s visions concern only the first side of the Berkeleyan equation: the representation of the underlying order. Her hunch is that the programmed and disciplined Order of Victory will hardly allow her personal expression and freedom of desire. While Frank, with his flamboyantly manipulative demeanor, seems to be the overarching culprit for coercing her, Jack, intentionally or not, also seems to have a hand in it.
Cut to the red carpet. Reviews of the film’s premiere, at the Venice Film Festival, were sharply – unjustly, I think – negative. They came in the wake of a deluge of reports dissecting the celebrity drama surrounding the film’s production and premiere — specifically, the apparent conflicts between Pugh and Wilde. This wouldn’t be the first time critical responses have been distorted by ballyhoot controversy, but in the case of “Don’t worry, Darling”, the disagreement proves particularly revealing regarding the on-screen results – as the conflict appears to be rooted in the casting.
Wilde initially cast Shia LaBeouf as Jack before replacing him with Styles. Wilde claims she fired LaBeouf to “protect” her cast and in particular Pugh from his (unspecified) behavior. In a recent Vanity Fair article, Wilde says Pugh told her she was uncomfortable about LaBeouf. LaBeouf claims he was not fired, but retired due to lack of rehearsal time; he released a video Wilde sent him in which she expressed hopes that he could return and that Pugh could be persuaded to work with him. (Wilde reportedly recorded the video before Pugh’s discomfort with LaBeouf became apparent.) To add to the intrigue, Wilde and Styles began dating during the filming. While Wilde may have displayed poor judgment in this episode, her directing instincts didn’t fail her: Styles shines in the film’s few and brief musical and choreographic moments, providing smooth dialogue and enduring herself with a seductive to slide. The air of aggression, of menace, of unease in his own skin that LaBeouf brings to his on-screen persona would have emphasized the film’s omens of disorder and danger. On the other hand, even directors’ best intentions are often at odds with a resulting good movie – keeping Styles’ chipper performance undercurrents so far below the surface that when they finally come forward it’s a big surprise, it kind that it would be irresponsible to mention in a review.