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“Don’t Worry Darling” Is So Much More Than Hollywood Gossip Fodder

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It’s hard to write both reasonably and responsibly about Olivia Wilde’s new film, “Don’t Worry Darling” (which opens Friday), because the movie gets much of its meaning from a plot twist, occurring midway through, that delightfully surprised me and that I don’t want to spoil. (I’ll be careful, but caveat lector.) The movie, set mainly in California in what appears to be the late nineteen-fifties, makes extraordinary use of production design, dramatic staging, and narrative details, in order to taint its own realism and render the action eerie, uncanny, elusive. What’s more, the film’s self-undercutting subtleties and its big dramatic reveal serve a greater purpose: its depiction of oppression in an out-of-whack, past-tense America calls to mind the country’s current-day political pathologies. “Don’t Worry Darling” serves that purpose with a cleverness to match its focussed sense of outrage.

Florence Pugh plays Alice Chambers, one of a group of women living in Victory, a planned community established in a remote expanse of a California desert. Her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), like all the husbands of all the women she knows, works for the seemingly defense-related Victory Project, which—like the town itself—is built and run by a sunshiny, charismatic man named Frank (Chris Pine). But something seems off, starting with the town’s chilling uniformity. At the cul-de-sac where the Chamberses and their neighbors live, Jack and the other men, including Dean (Nick Kroll) and Pete (Asif Ali), pull out of their driveways at exactly the same time each morning, seen off identically by their wives, Alice, Bunny (Olivia Wilde), and Peg (Kate Berlant), and then flow into the desert with other cars of other men driving to the same workplace, somewhere amid the nearby mountains.

That uniformity suggests authoritarianism. Women don’t work; they aren’t allowed to drive and instead have free use of a trolley (the “Victory Bus Link”) decorated with slogans exhorting the passengers to secrecy. (“What you hear here . . . let it stay here.”) It takes them all to a ballet class run by Frank’s wife, Shelley (Gemma Chan), who intones soothing mantras about “control,” “symmetry,” and “order.” At home during the day, Alice listens to a radio that drones with a male announcer’s voice encouraging listeners’ “sacrifice” and “loyalty” and promising to “protect” them. The upbeat Frank warmly gathers his employees and their families at a garden party at his lavish home, where he offers “progress” to drive out “chaos,” refuses a return to society at large (“We stand our ground!”), and gets his acolytes to affirm their purpose in Victory: “Changing the world!”

Part of the allure of Victory is its cool sense of style. Its residents live to the beat of the era’s needle-drops, surrounded by a curated set of design elements that has so systematically eliminated the crass and the kitschy that it comes off as instant retro—a living museum of the moment. If “Don’t Worry Darling” offered nothing but its sense of design and its performances—especially those of Pugh, Wilde, Berlant, and Chan, which are delicately calibrated between earnest expression and parodical gestures and diction—it would still be a sensory delight, not least because Wilde, working with the cinematographer Matthew Libatique, embodies the movie’s physical world in similarly inflected and stylized images. (Among the most enticing is a matched pair of circular tracking shots, one around a cluster of husbands, the other of wives.) Yet Victory’s sleek beauty is inseparable from its relentlessly gendered and rigid social order. Like the other women, Alice spends her days scrubbing the house (which, in architecture and furnishings, is in a bright and hard-edged style that would then have been cutting-edge commercial modern), shopping (for similarly sharp-line clothing, in a department store where the women have bottomless charge accounts that never come due), and preparing for her husband’s return home by cooking a lavish, daily, multicourse dinner and primping herself to welcome him. Unlike their neighbors, Alice and Jack have no children and like it that way—because they have a freewheelingly hot marriage, as displayed in a fast sexual encounter (the Internet-famous one), of Jack going down on her amid the dishes on the dining-room table, moments after he gets home from work.

Yet there’s trouble in this candy-colored Formica paradise. Its Cassandra is Margaret Watkins (KiKi Layne), one of the few Black people in Victory, who, after some time away, has returned there with her husband, Ted (Ari’el Stachel), an employee of the Project. At Frank’s company garden party, Margaret interrupts the team-building festivities—“Why are we here? We shouldn’t be here”—and Ted whisks her away. At the department store, Alice’s friends gossip about Margaret’s transgression of company rules and the consequences that followed. Margaret reaches out to Alice to express doubts about the town’s order; soon thereafter, Alice witnesses a tragic incident. Victory’s men, in red uniforms (the local equivalent of men in white coats), get involved, while Jack and a conspicuously evil doctor (Timothy Simons) gaslight Alice, who then begins to investigate on her own, challenging Frank’s authority and the official stories that go with it. In so doing, she puts Jack’s career, and much more, at risk; her intrepid quest turns the drama into a thriller.

Some of Victory’s positive qualities—such as its anachronistic racial and ethnic integration and its lack of inhibition about sex—suggest little but a mask for its schemes of control. Yet, even before being jolted by Margaret’s existential question about this isolated community, Alice appears, by her own nature, to be out of synch with its rigid order. She seemingly compulsively disrupts the routine of programmed happiness: benignly, as when she cracks one egg after another onto the floor, and terrifyingly, as when she tests her mortality by tightly wrapping her head in plastic wrap and struggling to breathe as she tears it off. (At times, the movie veers toward the grotesquely shocking imagery of horror films.) She has grim hallucinations and allusive inner visions that the movie displays in detail.

Those visions, linking Alice’s own corporeal confusions to a distinctly audiovisual one, evoke an inner disorder, or, rather, a questioning of the drive for order. They link bodily functions, such as the flow of blood and the contractions and expansions of the eye’s iris, to black-and-white dance scenes imitating the geometrical and symmetrical imagery of production numbers from Busby Berkeley’s nineteen-thirties musicals. I’m a Berkeley obsessive, and have long felt that his intensely rhythmic dance formations are a cinematic vision of biological functions and social conditions that give rise to the anarchic individuation of personality and desire. But Alice’s visions involve only the first side of the Berkeleyan equation: its display of underlying order. Her premonition is that the programmed and disciplined order of Victory will hardly allow for her personal expression and freedom of desire. Though Frank, with his flamboyantly manipulative behavior, appears to be the overarching culprit in constraining her, Jack, too, whether intentionally or not, also seems to have a hand in it.

Cut to the red carpet. Reviews from the film’s première, at the Venice Film Festival, were sharply—unduly, I think—negative. They came in the wake of a torrent of reports that parsed the celebrity drama surrounding the film’s production and its première—in particular, apparent conflicts between Pugh and Wilde. This wouldn’t be the first time that critical responses have been distorted by ballyhooed controversy, but, in the case of “Don’t Worry Darling,” the discord proves particularly revealing regarding the onscreen results—because the conflict appears rooted in casting.

Wilde initially cast Shia LaBeouf as Jack before replacing him with Styles. Wilde claims that she fired LaBeouf in order to “protect” her cast and, in particular, Pugh, from his (unspecified) behavior. In a recent Vanity Fair article, Wilde says that Pugh told her that she was uneasy about LaBeouf. LaBeouf claims that he wasn’t fired but quit, owing to a lack of rehearsal time; he released a video that Wilde sent to him in which she expressed hope that he could return and Pugh could be persuaded to work with him. (Reportedly, Wilde recorded the video before Pugh’s discomfort with LaBeouf was made clear.) Adding to the intrigue, Wilde and Styles began dating during the shoot. Though Wilde may have displayed poor judgment in this episode, her directorial instinct didn’t fail her: Styles shines in the movie’s few and brief musical and choreographic moments, delivers dialogue smoothly, and bears himself with a seductive glide. The air of aggression, of menace, of unease in his own skin that LaBeouf brings to his onscreen persona would have highlighted the movie’s omens of disorder and danger. On the other hand, even directors’ best intentions are often at odds with a resulting good movie—Styles’s chipper performance keeps those undercurrents so far beneath the surface that, when they ultimately surge forth, it’s a big surprise, the kind that it would be irresponsible to disclose in a review. ♦


It’s hard to write both reasonably and responsibly about Olivia Wilde’s new film, “Don’t Worry Darling” (which opens Friday), because the movie gets much of its meaning from a plot twist, occurring midway through, that delightfully surprised me and that I don’t want to spoil. (I’ll be careful, but caveat lector.) The movie, set mainly in California in what appears to be the late nineteen-fifties, makes extraordinary use of production design, dramatic staging, and narrative details, in order to taint its own realism and render the action eerie, uncanny, elusive. What’s more, the film’s self-undercutting subtleties and its big dramatic reveal serve a greater purpose: its depiction of oppression in an out-of-whack, past-tense America calls to mind the country’s current-day political pathologies. “Don’t Worry Darling” serves that purpose with a cleverness to match its focussed sense of outrage.

Florence Pugh plays Alice Chambers, one of a group of women living in Victory, a planned community established in a remote expanse of a California desert. Her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), like all the husbands of all the women she knows, works for the seemingly defense-related Victory Project, which—like the town itself—is built and run by a sunshiny, charismatic man named Frank (Chris Pine). But something seems off, starting with the town’s chilling uniformity. At the cul-de-sac where the Chamberses and their neighbors live, Jack and the other men, including Dean (Nick Kroll) and Pete (Asif Ali), pull out of their driveways at exactly the same time each morning, seen off identically by their wives, Alice, Bunny (Olivia Wilde), and Peg (Kate Berlant), and then flow into the desert with other cars of other men driving to the same workplace, somewhere amid the nearby mountains.

That uniformity suggests authoritarianism. Women don’t work; they aren’t allowed to drive and instead have free use of a trolley (the “Victory Bus Link”) decorated with slogans exhorting the passengers to secrecy. (“What you hear here . . . let it stay here.”) It takes them all to a ballet class run by Frank’s wife, Shelley (Gemma Chan), who intones soothing mantras about “control,” “symmetry,” and “order.” At home during the day, Alice listens to a radio that drones with a male announcer’s voice encouraging listeners’ “sacrifice” and “loyalty” and promising to “protect” them. The upbeat Frank warmly gathers his employees and their families at a garden party at his lavish home, where he offers “progress” to drive out “chaos,” refuses a return to society at large (“We stand our ground!”), and gets his acolytes to affirm their purpose in Victory: “Changing the world!”

Part of the allure of Victory is its cool sense of style. Its residents live to the beat of the era’s needle-drops, surrounded by a curated set of design elements that has so systematically eliminated the crass and the kitschy that it comes off as instant retro—a living museum of the moment. If “Don’t Worry Darling” offered nothing but its sense of design and its performances—especially those of Pugh, Wilde, Berlant, and Chan, which are delicately calibrated between earnest expression and parodical gestures and diction—it would still be a sensory delight, not least because Wilde, working with the cinematographer Matthew Libatique, embodies the movie’s physical world in similarly inflected and stylized images. (Among the most enticing is a matched pair of circular tracking shots, one around a cluster of husbands, the other of wives.) Yet Victory’s sleek beauty is inseparable from its relentlessly gendered and rigid social order. Like the other women, Alice spends her days scrubbing the house (which, in architecture and furnishings, is in a bright and hard-edged style that would then have been cutting-edge commercial modern), shopping (for similarly sharp-line clothing, in a department store where the women have bottomless charge accounts that never come due), and preparing for her husband’s return home by cooking a lavish, daily, multicourse dinner and primping herself to welcome him. Unlike their neighbors, Alice and Jack have no children and like it that way—because they have a freewheelingly hot marriage, as displayed in a fast sexual encounter (the Internet-famous one), of Jack going down on her amid the dishes on the dining-room table, moments after he gets home from work.

Yet there’s trouble in this candy-colored Formica paradise. Its Cassandra is Margaret Watkins (KiKi Layne), one of the few Black people in Victory, who, after some time away, has returned there with her husband, Ted (Ari’el Stachel), an employee of the Project. At Frank’s company garden party, Margaret interrupts the team-building festivities—“Why are we here? We shouldn’t be here”—and Ted whisks her away. At the department store, Alice’s friends gossip about Margaret’s transgression of company rules and the consequences that followed. Margaret reaches out to Alice to express doubts about the town’s order; soon thereafter, Alice witnesses a tragic incident. Victory’s men, in red uniforms (the local equivalent of men in white coats), get involved, while Jack and a conspicuously evil doctor (Timothy Simons) gaslight Alice, who then begins to investigate on her own, challenging Frank’s authority and the official stories that go with it. In so doing, she puts Jack’s career, and much more, at risk; her intrepid quest turns the drama into a thriller.

Some of Victory’s positive qualities—such as its anachronistic racial and ethnic integration and its lack of inhibition about sex—suggest little but a mask for its schemes of control. Yet, even before being jolted by Margaret’s existential question about this isolated community, Alice appears, by her own nature, to be out of synch with its rigid order. She seemingly compulsively disrupts the routine of programmed happiness: benignly, as when she cracks one egg after another onto the floor, and terrifyingly, as when she tests her mortality by tightly wrapping her head in plastic wrap and struggling to breathe as she tears it off. (At times, the movie veers toward the grotesquely shocking imagery of horror films.) She has grim hallucinations and allusive inner visions that the movie displays in detail.

Those visions, linking Alice’s own corporeal confusions to a distinctly audiovisual one, evoke an inner disorder, or, rather, a questioning of the drive for order. They link bodily functions, such as the flow of blood and the contractions and expansions of the eye’s iris, to black-and-white dance scenes imitating the geometrical and symmetrical imagery of production numbers from Busby Berkeley’s nineteen-thirties musicals. I’m a Berkeley obsessive, and have long felt that his intensely rhythmic dance formations are a cinematic vision of biological functions and social conditions that give rise to the anarchic individuation of personality and desire. But Alice’s visions involve only the first side of the Berkeleyan equation: its display of underlying order. Her premonition is that the programmed and disciplined order of Victory will hardly allow for her personal expression and freedom of desire. Though Frank, with his flamboyantly manipulative behavior, appears to be the overarching culprit in constraining her, Jack, too, whether intentionally or not, also seems to have a hand in it.

Cut to the red carpet. Reviews from the film’s première, at the Venice Film Festival, were sharply—unduly, I think—negative. They came in the wake of a torrent of reports that parsed the celebrity drama surrounding the film’s production and its première—in particular, apparent conflicts between Pugh and Wilde. This wouldn’t be the first time that critical responses have been distorted by ballyhooed controversy, but, in the case of “Don’t Worry Darling,” the discord proves particularly revealing regarding the onscreen results—because the conflict appears rooted in casting.

Wilde initially cast Shia LaBeouf as Jack before replacing him with Styles. Wilde claims that she fired LaBeouf in order to “protect” her cast and, in particular, Pugh, from his (unspecified) behavior. In a recent Vanity Fair article, Wilde says that Pugh told her that she was uneasy about LaBeouf. LaBeouf claims that he wasn’t fired but quit, owing to a lack of rehearsal time; he released a video that Wilde sent to him in which she expressed hope that he could return and Pugh could be persuaded to work with him. (Reportedly, Wilde recorded the video before Pugh’s discomfort with LaBeouf was made clear.) Adding to the intrigue, Wilde and Styles began dating during the shoot. Though Wilde may have displayed poor judgment in this episode, her directorial instinct didn’t fail her: Styles shines in the movie’s few and brief musical and choreographic moments, delivers dialogue smoothly, and bears himself with a seductive glide. The air of aggression, of menace, of unease in his own skin that LaBeouf brings to his onscreen persona would have highlighted the movie’s omens of disorder and danger. On the other hand, even directors’ best intentions are often at odds with a resulting good movie—Styles’s chipper performance keeps those undercurrents so far beneath the surface that, when they ultimately surge forth, it’s a big surprise, the kind that it would be irresponsible to disclose in a review. ♦

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