The Austin Chronicle

Don't Worry Darling

Rated R, 123 min. Directed by Olivia Wilde. Starring Olivia Wilde, Harry Styles, Florence Pugh, Chris Pine, Gemma Chan, Nick Kroll, Kiki Layne.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 23, 2022

Before everything goes haywire in a thriller, it helps to see the halcyon days first. Don’t Worry Darling’s version is a doozy. It’s midcentury America. Palm Springs chic. At a dinner party, everybody is drunk and horny and grooving to the record player. Housewife Alice Chambers (Pugh) adores her life and most especially her husband, Jack Chambers (Styles), a golden god rapidly ascending the ranks at work. To outward appearances, it’s a charmed existence.

Of course, appearances can be deceiving – and usually are in films presenting as psychological thrillers. The era is slippery. The divine cinched waist dresses and gingham patterns read Fifties, the soundtrack cues mostly Sixties, then Alice starts to have a recurring vision ripped straight from Busby Berkeley’s 1930s film playbook. The location projects mystery, too: a desert community where all the men work on the top-secret Victory Project and all their wives dutifully keep house, the town is rimmed on all sides by mountains the women are forbidden from crossing. When Alice scans the horizon 360 degrees, the effect is a little like she’s living in the bottom of a fishbowl.

The comparison tracks, not only because Alice is starting to suspect something fishy is going on at the Victory Project, but because the film itself has invited such rabid, bug-eyed scrutiny. Don’t Worry Darling obviously wants to say something impactful about the way men and women strain under gender expectations; ironically, the discourse around the movie – including reports of a troubled production, then a disastrous promotional run – is ultimately more fruitful material than what wound up on screen.

What wound up on screen – as realized by director Olivia Wilde and screenwriters Carey Van Dyke, Shane Van Dyke, and Katie Silberman (who wrote Wilde’s directorial debut, the sparky 2019 teen comedy Booksmart) – is smoke and mirrors and not much else: all mystery and no psychology, an embarrassingly bad “reveal” with all the sophistication of an undergraduate thesis paper, and a rush to the exit to not have to explain the mechanics of what’s transpired. Which is a goddamn shame, because there is so much to like here, most especially Matthew Libatique’s cinematography, the immaculate production and costume design, and a handful of terrific performances, including Chris Pine (the best Chris, typecast as a charismatic cult leader), Wilde as Alice’s mouthy best friend, and Pugh herself, holding the camera’s gaze like a dare and dominating every frame of the film.

But the gap between potential and payoff here is a chasm. A swing and a miss is too timid a dismissal. It’s a sumptuously dressed table that ends in a wet fart.

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