As part of our coverage of the 79th Venice International Film Festival, Lex Briscuso reviews Olivia Wilde’s second directorial feature, Don’t Worry Darling, starring Florence Pugh and Harry Styles. Follow along with more coverage in our Venice Film Festival archives.
When you imagine your perfect life, you might not imagine one where everything looks like a Slim Aarons photo, but after seeing Olivia Wilde’s second feature film, Don’t Worry Darling, you’ll want to inhabit just that kind of stylistic world. Well, at least for the first twenty minutes of the film. Wilde’s second directorial attempt shifts genres from comedy (her first feature, Booksmart, was the female answer to Superbad) to psychological thriller, and the world she creates is, at its core, far from the beauty and magic it seems to present to its inhabitants at first glance.
Florence Pugh shines in a tour de force leading performance, giving us another absorbing turn as a woman who cannot trust those around her, while Harry Styles plays opposite her with a warm magnetism that pulls you all the way in until you, like Pugh, are stuck in a place you never wanted to go. Don’t Worry Darling is one hell of an adventure, and the consequences will both shake you and leave you feeling like, in 2022, the film’s disturbing plotline isn’t too far from plausible in the real world — which, in a way, makes this movie more of a horror film than the scariest ghost stories.
Don’t Worry Darling follows the story of a housewife named Alice (Pugh), who is the perfect companion to her husband, Jack (Styles), a successful engineer who works for the mysterious “Victory Project.” Alice cooks, cleans, and loves her husband unconditionally as they enjoy their life in an idyllic Palm Springs-style community in a 1950s-era desert town. But when a former friend (KiKi Layne) starts to assert that there are more secrets being kept from the women of the community than they ever thought possible, Alice sets out on a harrowing journey to find out exactly what the men of the “Victory Project” are up to, despite knowing it may shake her to her very foundations.
One of the biggest first impressions of this film is that Wilde’s second feature is just stunning to look at. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is excellent, giving us a very sharp and striking view of the world of Victory and its colorful, stylized design. It beautifully shows off the impeccable production design (by Katie Byron) and costumes (by Arianne Phillips, who was honored at the Venice Film Festival for her contributions to the film) and gives them a huge platform to shine. Both the production and costume design are very crucial to the world Wilde builds within Katie Silberman’s script, and it’s clear that was a focal point in developing the picture. That said, it wasn’t exactly on point with its 1950s-era looks; Some elements were slightly off, though it could be argued that that was done intentionally to make the world of the film feel just a bit off, which is crucial to the story that unfolds throughout the runtime. And it does feel off, a suspicion the audience shares with Pugh’s Alice from early on.
Contrary to a lot of post-press screening talk, I found Styles to be rather engaging on screen. He’s very charming as Pugh’s husband, and their chemistry is deeply palpable from their very first scene together. They work well as a couple and play off each other nicely; Their love — which, as the film goes on, you find is the only thing keeping the charade from slipping — feels real. It is clear he’s new to the acting game (having only previously been in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk), but he is far from hard to watch. Weeks ago, a short clip of him and Pugh having an argument debuted online, and he got absolutely skewered for his performance, but in context, when you look at his work as a whole, he is full of grace and even a healthy dose of nuance in this role.
Plus, the accent is actually part of the plot — and it plays into my favorite part of his turn in this piece, where we actually discover more about Jack’s past. He really nails this second dimension of his duplicitous character, and it’s incredibly satisfying to see this other side of him that seems to be there just below his well-groomed, handsome surface. We wonder throughout the film how perfect he really is, and he does a great job of hiding behind charm, wit, and tenderness. If you’ve followed his career even a little bit, you’ll notice he’s laying himself bare on screen, practically just being himself and relying on his natural charisma in nearly every scene — you know, until his character isn’t that person anymore. If this is how he handles his first major role — and knowing how much he’s improved as a musician over the years — I’m excited to see how he develops as an actor as he continues to take part in future films.
Unsurprisingly, Pugh is revelatory in the role of Alice. She’s made a name for herself by playing this type of panicked character who is insatiable for knowledge and truth, as well as as an actor who can create genuine tension and dread with her performances. This part is no exception to that, and she continues to shine brightly as a woman in paramount distress. It could even be argued that this performance is even better than her part in Midsommar, which is saying something considering how effective her role in that film is by the time the credits roll. She is fierce, electric, and fueled by a fire that feels unique to the soul of her character.
In a lot of ways, Alice is a feminist hero for the ages, asserting at a climactic point in the film that her life is her own, and how dare anyone try to rob her of that autonomy. It’s very on the nose, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack a punch or that it isn’t a truth we should heed in 2022. Her voice is one that should be amplified, especially in an age where Roe vs. Wade has been gutted despite its overwhelming support throughout the American populace. Women have always had their rights utterly bastardized, which is what makes not only Florence’s performance pitch perfect in its rage but the film’s plot developments all too realistic in a heightened setting.
The film is incredibly entertaining and engrossing. From the beginning, you’re dying to know what the twist is because it’s pretty obvious that there is one. But there are a few places I was hoping for more meat and less aesthetic. Chris Pine and Gemma Chan, the allegedly prolific leader of the Victory Project and his frigid yet intriguing wife, were woefully underused in the film, Chan in particular. With Pine’s character, he plays the enigmatic and sinister Frank, and while his legend looms large within the Victory community, he doesn’t nearly get enough screen time for his malice and motives to be fully fleshed out. What we do see from him is undeniably intriguing, but more would’ve helped the audience get the most full picture of his insidiousness and its origins.
Similarly, Chan’s Shelley is just as mysterious as her allusive and captivating husband, but she gets even less time to show it off than he does. She gets her comeuppance at the end of the film, but because her character is hardly fleshed out, it doesn’t feel earned, though it easily could’ve been with just a little more attention to her journey alongside Frank.
Despite a few bumps in the road with some flaws in the script and its character development, Don’t Worry Darling stands out as an incredibly fun film that doesn’t mince words when it comes to the message it is trying to send to its audience. Doing what’s right is paramount to all else, and if it means blowing up your life to do it, you should. It’s nice to see a film deliver a message of importance — and shed yet another light on a major issue in the ways society is backsliding in regards to women’s rights — while also an exciting, undeniably wild ride down into the depths of deception.
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