Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling is a film that doesn’t hide the fact that it is features some kind of big twist – mostly because it can’t. The idyllic, utopian 1950s American Dream aesthetic and atmosphere instantly inspires a paranoia that there is great darkness lurking underneath everything, and thus the movie rapidly skips from “Is everything as it seems?” to “What is really going on here?” The audience is ahead of Florence Pugh’s protagonist from the start, as we know that she is in some kind of trouble before she does, but the first act plays out quickly as she plays catch-up.
It’s after this table setting, unfortunately, that Don’t Worry Darling loses its way. While the opening braces you for escalating terror and an expanding mystery, the whole thing stops escalating pretty damn quickly. Without stakes being raised or new details brought to light that informs our understanding of what’s really happening, the middle of the film dawdles and slumps as it plays with symbolism, eerie imagery and straight exposition dumps instead of gaining narrative momentum. By the time that it gets around to its third act and the big secrets are fully revealed, all that’s really left is to exasperatingly nod as it affirms your most obvious predictions and question how certain things work and why particular choices were made.
Florence Pugh’s aforementioned protagonist is Alice, a young woman who lives with her husband Jack (Harry Styles) in a small and secluded community for employees of the secretive Victory Project. As the men drive off every morning to go to a highly secure company headquarters in the desert, Alice and her friends are left to do chores around the house, gossip among themselves, take ballet lessons and go shopping. The men come home at night to a prepared meal from their wives, and the next day the cycle starts over again.
Feeling a touch of ennui one day, Alice decides to get out of the house and take the local trolley out to the end of the line and back. As she takes in the afternoon, though, she sees a smoking plane fly overhead and crash beyond a mountain. When the trolley driver refuses to deviate from his route, she decides to investigate the crash herself on foot – leading her into off-limits territory. After she discovers a strange building and then mysteriously wakes up back in her own house, she begins to have deep suspicions about what it is that the Victory Project is doing, and she questions the intentions of Victory’s charismatic leader, Frank (Chris Pine).
Don’t Worry Darling is full of metaphor and symbolism, but lacks a substantial mystery.
Don’t Worry Darling is an impressive demonstration of range for Olivia Wilde, as the film is a wholly different kind of cinematic endeavor than her directorial debut, Booksmart. But while her R-rated comedy is well-paced and sharp, her latest movie drags far more than any thriller should. The middle of the movie is filled with scenes designed to put audiences on edge as Alice starts noticing weird things about her world, but it’s all for the service of tone and never for the service of story. We never actually see her learn anything from the experiences that advance her awareness of what’s happening, which would draw us further into the mystery. It’s all just surface-level material meant to instigate a descent into madness for the main character and continually drives home the same “something isn’t right here” idea.
As far as theme and symbolism are concerned, Don’t Worry Darling has strong intentions and good general instincts, but it’s also pretty damn obvious. This isn’t a forum to dive into spoilers, but being cognizant of how the women’s rights movement has changed society since the mid-20th century really gets you more than halfway there as far as understanding what the film is trying to say. There are some great and freaky visuals/moments that come out of it – like Alice being mysteriously crushed against a plate glass window, and getting the instinct to suffocate herself by wrapping plastic wrap around her own head – but the movie can’t also find a way to make the moments substantive in the story.
Plot holes only grow bigger after you know Don’t Worry Darling’s big secret.
One would also hope that a movie like this would be built in such a way that a second viewing would provide a different kind of experience – with everything being granted a new context by knowing how it all plays out. I can’t say I really see that happening with Don’t Worry Darling, however, because there are simply too many details that the big third act answers don’t explain. There are certainly some instances of legitimate cleverness that are revealed in retrospect, and you can meet the logic of the world halfway with certain elements, but there are also a lot of big things that don’t line up, and they undermine the film.
Given the star-power involved, Olivia Wilde’s rising star as a director and all of the pressures that come with a twist-centric setup, Don’t Worry Darling is a movie that invites high expectations, and it’s a shame that it can’t quite live up to them. It’s well-made in its cinematography and style, and Florence Pugh continues to demonstrate that she is among the greatest talents in her generation, but the film is lacking in enough areas to not be buoyed by its best qualities.
Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.