“Don’t Worry Darling” Review: Stellar Leads Can’t Save Muddled, Boring Thriller

The much-discussed thriller from actor-director Olivia Wilde plays like a bad episode of ”Black Mirror”
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There are so many angles from which to attack a review of Olivia Wilde’s sophomore feature Don’t Worry Darling that it’s hard to pick just one—so allow me to go with the only one that really matters: Is this a good movie, or not? And the answer to that question is, sadly, no. It is not. There. Save your money and wait for it to hit HBO Max. You’re welcome.

But… if I wanted to go in another direction, there are so many to choose from—some of them related to the actual film itself and how it serves as further proof that Florence Pugh is a genuine movie star, and others related to the off-camera drama that has plagued its buzzy release. In short, Wilde hired Shia LaBeouf (prior to FKA Twigs’ abuse allegations) to star opposite Pugh, and then, whether LaBeouf quit due to a lack of rehearsal time or was fired after not seeing eye to eye with Pugh, he was replaced by Harry Styles, who Wilde subsequently began canoodling with during production… while still partnered with Jason Sudeikis. The crew was mortified, and Pugh has done limited press for the film, while LaBeouf released the receipts behind the casting mishegas, and Styles joked about being accused of spitting on co-star Chris Pine at the Venice Film Festival. Got all that? Great, we can move on, even though I know it’ll be hard for many to check this film’s pre-existing baggage at the theater door and ignore it for two hours.

And just why will that, in fact, be so hard? Because Don’t Worry Darling, I hate to break it to you, is kind of boring. Your mind will almost assuredly wander to that off-screen drama, especially during the third act when the jig is up and the sense of mystery that had been keeping you interested quickly disappears. The original screenplay by Carey and Shane Van Dyke was voted to the 2019 Black List of great, undeveloped scripts; however, the current version of the script is credited to Katie Silberman (one of four writers on Wilde’s Booksmart), but as it stands, Darling is nothing more than an extended Black Mirror episode with a lousy ending.

The film takes place in what appears to be the 1950s, seeing as how the women stay at home cooking, cleaning, crafting, and raising their children while the men all head off to work (at the same time) at the mystery Victory Project, led by Pine’s charismatic Frank. No one really knows, or at least wants to acknowledge, what the Victory Project does beyond “the development of progressive materials,” but it’s enough to shake the entire community once a day with a low-level earthquake. Despite this daily domestic disturbance, everyone is quite happy, including the passionate Jack (Styles) and Alice (Pugh), or so it seems on the surface…

Don't Worry Darling
Image via New Line Cinema

Don't Worry Darling

When a member of the tight-knit community suffers some kind of mental breakdown, its entire facade of perfection is threatened, as we come to learn more about the Victory Project and its sinister nature—something that is never really in doubt, despite Frank’s insistence otherwise. Had the nature of the Victory Project ever been in question, Don’t Worry Darling might have been more effective, but it is at once too mysterious and not mysterious enough.

Both Pine and Styles are good in this film, with the latter most impressive when he’s flying off the handle, and the former at his best while being quietly menacing. However, Pugh is even better as a desperate housewife who suspects that something is missing from her life, even if she can’t quite put her finger on it. Once she’s able to, it’s a whole new ballgame, and Don’t Worry Darling becomes a bit more bearable, though, in the end, it refuses to answer so many of the questions that it poses, as its writers apparently felt no need to overexplain. But whether she’s smothering herself in Saran wrap or moaning in ecstasy on a dining table, Pugh commands attention in the way that few young stars do these days.

Speaking of said ecstasy, much has been made of the film’s sex scenes, and indeed, it’s nice to see a film bring a major celebrity (Styles) to his knees to indulge in a woman’s pleasure, yet oddly enough, the real romance here may be between Jack and Frank; the latter seems to have all the men under his spell, to the point where Jack is left speechless when Frank slips a symbolic ring upon his finger. The looks that the two of them share in this film aren’t terribly far off from those Styles shares with David Dawson in the pop star’s other fall film, the far superior My Policeman.

Don’t Worry Darling’s soundtrack boasts a bevy of 50s classics to immerse the audience in the period, and the wardrobes reflect the modest fashions of the day. And while the pastel production design enhances the illusion of perfection behind this strange, utopian community, we’re all well aware it’s an illusion of sorts, as there would be no real story here if it wasn’t.

Don't Worry Darling
Image via New Line Cinema

Don't Worry Darling

As a film reporter, I’m accustomed to having movies spoiled for me ahead of release, and yet I managed to go into Don’t Worry Darling relatively cold. I was actually surprised to hear critics describe it as a “twist” movie, as that’s not what I was expecting, and even if I was to consider this a “twist” movie, the twist, for starters, isn’t very good, and perhaps more importantly, the movie that precedes said “reveal” isn’t very interesting.

See, even without it, a classic “big twist” movie like The Sixth Sense still works as a movie without the big final reveal—just as The Usual Suspects would still be a great movie even if Keyser Soze turned out to be someone else entirely. Those may be lofty comparisons for Don’t Worry Darling, but the point is that a movie can’t simply hinge on whether its twist works or not, its script has to work on its own—independent of how the twist lands.

While there are several elements in Don’t Worry Darling worth highlighting, such as its cast, breathy score (courtesy of John Powell), production design (Katie Byron, channeling Edward Scissorhands), and dazzling cinematography (Matthew Libatique), as with pretty much all movies, the success of this one lies with its screenplay, which strands the actors and lets down Wilde, as well. Don’t get me wrong, darling, she’s clearly talented, but as a filmmaker, she erred in choosing a high-concept pod-people thriller posing as a feminist statement rather than a script with actual substance.

Throughout Don’t Worry Darling, Pine’s Frank is obsessed with pushing forward, so it’s ironic that the film represents a step backward for Wilde following her promising debut. Sharp chin up, and better luck next time, darling.

Grade: C