Separating Don’t Worry Darling, the second directorial outing of Olivia Wilde, from the stories of behind-the-scenes dysfunction that have surrounded it since before its debut at the Venice Film Festival this month would be as difficult and as pointless as scraping the barnacles off a whale. The movie has become indistinguishable from the saga of its release, a series of nested scandals that range from Wilde’s on-set affair with lead actor Harry Styles to the departure, for disputed reasons, of former lead actor Shia LaBeouf, all of it culminating in star Florence Pugh’s apparent refusal to participate in publicity events surrounding the film’s launch.
As many critics have noted during this meshugas-packed rollout, the real-life drama would be easier to get past if the scripted drama up on screen made for better watching. Instead, Don’t Worry Darling is a stylishly designed but dramatically tepid rehash of images and themes that have been familiar at least since The Stepford Wives in 1975: the oppressive conformity of suburban married life, the moral rot concealed beneath the bright surfaces of American consumerism, and the brutal toll systemic sexism takes on the minds and souls of women, even, or especially, if they present themselves to the world as fulfilled and happy housewives.
In a tradition that includes not only The Stepford Wives but The Truman Show, Pleasantville, and Blue Velvet, the setting of Don’t Worry Darling, a planned desert community called Victory, first appears to us not as a dystopia but as a utopia. It’s a smotheringly idyllic place populated entirely by young straight couples, some with children. The men all work at a top-secret facility at the edge of town on something ominously called the “Victory Project,” while the women spend their days cooking, cleaning, and dolling themselves up for their husbands’ return. The décor, the fashion, and the gender politics are all straight from a 1950s sitcom, but something is menacingly off-kilter. A charismatic leader, Frank (Chris Pine), runs the Victory settlement like a cult, gathering the townsfolk for inspirational speeches and keeping a sharp eye out for potential rule breakers, especially female ones.
One of Frank’s chief concerns is the increasingly odd behavior of Alice Chambers (Pugh), who, though at first blissfully happy in her childfree, sexually charged marriage to Jack (Styles), has begun to notice that something is amiss in their pastel-hued paradise. Whipping up eggs for her hubby one morning, she finds only a carton of empty shells. On a trolley ride to the edge of town, she sees a plane crash in the distance, only to be gaslightingly assured it was all in her imagination. One of her friends, Margaret (KiKi Layne), disappears after a suicide attempt that, again, is dismissed as a harmless accident. As Jack moves up in the Victory Project hierarchy, Alice begins experiencing strange fugue states in which the walls of her house, with obligingly obvious symbolism, seem to close in on her. It’s hard to tell whether Alice’s visions are trauma-fueled hallucinations or the result of some sinister form of mind control—and in some ways this remains true even after the third-act twist, which I now intend to spoil, if only to work through my own profound puzzlement about what it was all supposed to mean (and, on a less abstract level, what the hell even happened).
From here on I will assume that the reader has either already seen Don’t Worry Darling or doesn’t mind learning what happens in it, so proceed with that in mind. As we gradually deduce from a combination of Alice’s memory flashes and some abrupt cuts to a dingy urban setting very far from the manicured symmetry of Victory, everything that has taken place in that seeming desert oasis is in fact part of a grand-scale computer simulation. Back in the real world, analog Alice is shackled to a bed beside analog Jack (who has traded his sharp ’50s suits and ducktail hairdo for a sagging hoodie and a scruffy neckbeard), while their eyes, propped open in classic Clockwork Orange fashion, are exposed to moving lights that somehow aid in transporting their consciousness to the virtual suburb.
“Somehow” is a key concept in the last third of Don’t Worry Darling, since almost nothing that follows the big reveal stands up to the level of scrutiny any two viewers riding the escalator to the theater lobby would bring to a casual post-movie conversation. First of all, the motives of Chris Pine’s Frank remain hazy, beyond that he is a vaguely Jordan Peterson–esque men’s rights activist who wants to restore men and women to their “natural” roles. After one promising mid-movie scene in which Frank and Alice match wits at a Victory dinner party, the two never get a substantial scene together again. Frank’s eventual end—he’s stabbed to death by his wife (Gemma Chan), who has presumably had her consciousness raised by Alice’s redpilling speeches around town—is one of the movie’s most disappointing moments, and not just because it’s unclear why, at the end of the movie, so many of the women suddenly and conveniently begin to awaken, sometimes at little more than the sheer sight of Florence Pugh. Why set Frank and Alice up as sparring partners without giving us the satisfaction of a “here’s why I did it” villain speech (which Pine, bless him, would have delivered to a T) and the thrill of watching our plucky heroine, rather than a secondary character who has barely figured in the plot thus far, do him in?
Second question: In a key late twist, Alice’s gossipy neighbor Bunny (played by Wilde herself) reveals herself to be clued in on the virtual-reality scheme, confessing that, alone among the women of Victory, she has freely chosen this life. As the terrified Alice prepares to make her break for the analog world, Bunny warns her that, if you die within the simulation, your real body on the outside dies as well. Assuming the reverse is also the case (and how could it not be?), why do Frank’s red-suited henchmen go to all the trouble they do to hunt down virtual Alice, chasing her through the desert in pristine vintage cars in what is, admittedly, a well-filmed chase scene? Why not simply kill her immobilized host body back in the grubby analog world, thereby bringing down her digital double as well? Say what you will about the tenets of the robots in The Matrix, but at least they’re smart enough to attack both within the simulation and outside it.
The biggest “wha?” moment of many in Don’t Worry Darling is probably the final scene. Virtual Alice, having made it to the Jetsons-style headquarters of the Victory Project, places her hands on the glass doors of the building, which, as established earlier, represents a kind of border zone between the analog and virtual worlds. This appears to be where Alice can quite literally step through the looking glass. She then has a series of by now familiar hallucinations: an extreme close-up of a dilating pupil, the women of Victory as Busby Berkeley–style chorines dancing in formation, and a Rorschach-esque blot of blood. One of these visions appears to be the well-groomed virtual version of her husband—let’s call him non-dirtbag Jack—who clasps her in her arms to nuzzle her neck. This presents a new metaphysical problem in the movie’s universe, given that we have already seen virtual Alice kill virtual Jack before making her break for freedom. Is this new iteration of Harry Styles an illusion conjured by Victory to convince her to stay, or is it simply a psychological hallucination on Alice’s part? And speaking of those psychological hallucinations, what exactly are the visions that Alice has been seeing over the course of the film? Did a plane really crash in the mountains, or was that “a glitch in the Matrix” (a concept more clearly explained in that movie), or is Alice, for all that she’s right about the patriarchal conspiracy holding her down, actually losing her mind?
In the film’s final seconds, the red-clad minions who maintain public order in Victory by carting away truth speakers appear to have Alice trapped against the glass wall of the Jetsons building. But after another trippy eyeball–close-up montage, we cut to black and hear the sound of her waking up, gasping as if coming out of a nightmare, at which point the title of the movie appears, signaling the start of the end credits. When Alice’s eyes adjust to the dark, will she find herself in the imperfect but authentic analog world or back in the suffocating pleasantness of Victory? Has she eluded the advancing red suits and crossed back into reality? If so, will she wake up in bed next to a dead, neckbearded Harry Styles? I appreciate the richness of ambiguity in art, I promise I do, but is it so wrong to ask for clarity from the endings of your sci-fi thrillers? This isn’t Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It’s Flo Pugh in a cute vintage dress fleeing bad guys, and I for one would like to know if she got away.
Plot holes aside, Don’t Worry Darling’s biggest issue is not narrative but thematic. The feminist allegory of the wives’ digital entrapment in Victory simply doesn’t map onto the gender politics of today’s world. Alice’s awakening to her plight is not functionally different from Betty Friedan’s in her second-wave manifesto The Feminine Mystique. The notion that a secret cabal of aggrieved men is conspiring in a mass gaslighting operation to rob women of their bodily autonomy and economic freedom is a promising setup for a dystopic sci-fi thriller. But the nostalgic ’50s setting, with its presupposition that women should function only as perky housekeeping automatons, bears little relation to the much subtler and more insidious ways 21st-century women are deprived of power. The impeccable midcentury costumes, doo-wop soundtrack, and candy-colored cars make Don’t Worry Darling a visually sumptuous and fairly fun two-hour ride, and negative press aside, Harry Styles is not a bad actor, though he can’t reach the charismatic heights of the always-dynamic Pugh and the deliciously nefarious Pine. The problems, though, are baked into the script. It isn’t the world of the placid, repressive ’50s whose constraints women are in need of escaping from—it’s the much murkier and infinitely more interesting place where we currently find ourselves.