You’ve got to admire a filmmaker who decides to go full-on Icarus and swing those wax wings towards the sun after a reasonably successful debut. After all, the descent ultimately defines the ascent: Both are full of their particular glories and infamies, but the latter gives the former its meaning. We wouldn’t remember Icarus if he’d never flown in the first place, but we also probably wouldn’t find his myth as such a potent metaphor if he hadn’t fallen out of the sky like a human-sized hailstone (one imagines decades upon decades of wax-wing advancements and how it might have changed human history – we probably would have just wound up like Brian Blessed in Flash Gordon, leading a bunch of winged bears into battle). Olivia Wilde is one such filmmaker, and her latest work, Don’t Worry Darling, fits this metaphor so well that you can practically feel the waxy feathers starting to fall off in the first few minutes. Nothing about making and selling this film has been easy, from the COVID shoot to the emergency recasting of a key character to the ill-timed serving of court documents on-stage at CinemaCon right before she showed off the first footage from the film to the fallout of that actor’s firing/quitting coming to haunt the film right before its premiere at Venice to the shenanigans that have defined the film’s press tour ever since then (and there are just too many to list out for me to continue this run-on sentence gag without truly testing your patience). If the film had been amazing, it still would have been fascinating, but because Don’t Worry Darling is such an out-and-out failure, it is even more so – all of this chaos for so few returns.
Don’t Worry Darling introduces us to the community of Victory, a small oasis of ‘50s domestic bliss and style in the middle of an otherwise barren and craggy desert. Like Los Alamos, it’s a company town formed to give the men of The Victory Project, a secretive enterprise shrouded in a mystery and fogged up by enigma, and their families a place to rest their heads at night in some amount of comfort. Everyone has the latest and greatest in slow-riding Caddies sitting in the drive beside their manicured lawns and spacious homes, and while the men are at work, the town’s women go about their business and manage the households. They go to ballet classes and fashion markets, all served with copious amounts of booze, but are still home in time (and sober enough) to cook their husbands exotic and abundant meals. This is the role in this world that Alice (Florence Pugh) inhabits, serving the needs of her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), who is making his way up in the project but who still has time to scatter all the dishes off the table and give his wife head at the dinner table each night (a dream for many, I am sure). But, as you might expect, things aren’t right in paradise. One of Alice’s former friends, Margaret (Kiki Layne), has started to lose her mind, having accidentally killed her child while walking through the desert in a trance-like state after seeing a mysterious red plane crash. No one believes her, especially not Bunny (Wilde), Alice’s best pal and next-door neighbor in her cul-de-sac, who thinks the woman’s evil and genuinely harmful to the community. But, one day, on the city’s tram-bus service, she sees that very same plane emerge from the sky and crash and embarks on a similar journey. What she discovers will shatter her perceptions of this idyllic little world and attract the attention of Frank (Chris Pine), the project’s bizarre leader. You better bet there’s a twist a-comin’, too.
The original script for Don’t Worry Darling spent a long time on the Black List, and once she’d selected it as her next project, Wilde hired her Booksmart co-collaborator X to re-write the draft to closer suit her interests. Beyond a few vague details about the film’s ending, I’m not sure what the original screenplay looked like, but one can pretty clearly see X’s style all over its final form, from the casual cattiness with how the women of Victory relate to it and the specific sort of mealy-mouthing that renders any sort of ideology the film have otherwise might have committed to hopelessly vague. It’s a film that so desperately wants to be about something – anything – that it never manages to focus in on any one concept. Is it about Friedan-era feminism emerging in a Manhattan Project-like company town? Is it about the male ego forcing women to submit to their desires? Is it about the cult-like nature of sequestered private enterprise and the paranoia that it breeds? The twist, supposedly intended to distill all this into some cogent form, only obscures: implied character motivations are so subtle as to be almost non-existent, with genuine blink-but-you’ll-miss-it ramifications on our understanding of what the hell the film exactly wants us to take away from it. But here’s the kicker: None of this would matter if it were well-executed because plenty of people, myself included, regularly enjoy films that they only half-understand. Unlike this, though, they’re usually competently made and compelling for other reasons.
Wilde’s direction is all over the place, and her all-in approach to the project means that everything is a flourish without the grounding and skill necessary to make it involving. The cinematography, done by longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique, is composed of ephemerally pretty and vacant imagery, perfectly suited for single-shot still compilations on Instagram, but the edges have been sanded off so that no one might, you know, find something real and/or beautiful within its steely and business-like construction. This is, of course, part of the point, but when you’re leaning on the surreal to provoke the audience, the intangibles make a difference. The details that become memorable – say, one actor’s make-up at a certain point that caused my audience to burst out in laughter that Wilde certainly did not intend – are its flaws, and not in the charming Chet Baker way. The editing is occasionally nightmarish, with Wilde’s approach to cross-cutting being a major problem. There’s a scene in which Pugh freaks out during a company party that’s cross-cut with Styles doing a goofy jitterbug on stage with Pine that’s so sloppily assembled one wonders if it was an act of sabotage, with every intended feeling – surreal heights, on one hand, tragic and wounded lows on the other – being consumed by the mild irritation that it evokes instead.
Her cast is equally mismanaged. Pugh’s intentionally a kind of blank slate, awoken to the flaws in this world by her friend’s slow-motion collapse, but her character is so thinly-written that she flounders until the twist, searching desperately for any tangible emotion to hang on to that she winds up amplifying them beyond what’s necessary. It’s a lot like digital compression’s effects on music: if you can’t make it sound as clear as vinyl, just raise the volume and pray that the listener can’t tell the difference. Pine, on the other hand, is egregiously miscast – his normally involving charisma is suffocated under the requirements of the role, with him never being able to transcend into the kind of compelling yet menacing attitude needed to get across what might rope someone into Victory or threaten them into compliance. Shia LaBeouf, who originally was cast, would have been the better choice, given his ability to evoke a layered sort of magnetic crazy, and Pine feels like a kind of cardboard cutout brought in to replace him, even if it were perhaps the right choice (who knows what exactly happened there). Styles does what he’s supposed to do, playing a sort of suave masculine ideal that’s both irresistible and kind of vacant. For a while, it looks like he’ll be the standout performer amongst the bunch (his accent isn’t terrible, and his few scenes of capital A-acting are very serviceable), but then the twist comes along and wrecks it. It’s the kind that will alienate his fanbase and prime the muskets of those not already in his favor for a volley of goofy tweets and memes, and his efforts, however valiant, aren’t rewarded in any way.
It’s somewhat telling that the only character in the film who seems to know where she is (and perhaps within the context of the film itself, not just in metaphorical terms) is Wilde’s exaggerated housewife, a caricature of a part-time harried mother and full-time alcoholic gossip. This is, perhaps, because she knows exactly what she wants from the performance, in a way that she’s able to cogently understand on a personal level but could never quite get across to the other actors on the project. But that’s one of the issues with ambition, no matter how endearing it might be in its broad strides towards greater evolution in filmmaking prowess and meaning-making. It is always hard – whether you’re trying to build a bookshelf without instructions, or baking a cake from scratch, or writing a movie review – to translate those interior goals and ideas about the finished project into something that resembles what you intended it to, especially when you don’t have a ton of experience with what you’re doing.
A guy used to making gorgeous woodcarvings might make a beautiful shelf that will topple, a person who excels at searing steaks might get pissed that their cake just won’t rise, and a writer well-versed in music or sports or whatnot might struggle with applying their skills to a different genre of criticism (Lord knows, I have). One must try, as always, and there will be some beauty in the process regardless. But one does fail, regardless of how endearing that failure’s ambitions can be, and there’s a certain majesty to Don’t Worry Darling’s fall out of the wild blue yonder.