For the pop culturally attuned, worrying about the film Don’t Worry Darling has become a weeks-long pastime, after a mess of a press tour that basically amounted to a whole TV season’s worth of water-cooler drama. The film, a psychological thriller starring Florence Pugh and little-known pop singer Harry Styles, finally arrived in theaters this weekend. Judgment day was kind – estimates have its debut weekend haul at $19.2m. Now that it’s out, we can do what the studio and director Olivia Wilde have encouraged us to do: judge the film by its own merits rather than real-world gossip (spoilers ahead).
The problem is, it’s impossible to separate the film from its off-screen drama. The PR around Don’t Worry Darling and the film itself suffer from a similar issue: there’s a clear discrepancy between what we’re told is happening and what we actually see. A difference between official narrative and actual material, and in the case of the film – which Wilde has billed as a vehicle for female pleasure and a feminist thriller – a stark gap between visual achievement and cheap, empty narrative.
On the PR side something was clearly off despite Wilde’s protestations that all the “endless tabloid gossip” around on-set strife and issues with Pugh amount to internet nonsense and sexist double standards (“am I envious of my male colleagues in the way that they seem to be able to live their lives without as much judgment? Yeah, I think about it,” she told Kelly Clarkson last week. “I’m like, ‘That must be nice to be that guy. Everybody’s just, like, applauding just every move he makes’”). Pugh, the lead star of a major release, skipped almost all promotional duties except the Venice film festival, where she did not acknowledge Wilde (there are a million TikToks/explainers dissecting the Venice premiere like the Zapruder film, if you want a refresher.) Vulture reported that the two had a screaming match in January 2021 that resulted in negotiations with Warner Bros executives to ensure Pugh would participate in any promotion at all. (A letter signed by 40 crew members disputed “any allegations of unprofessional behavior” on set and called reports of a vocal argument between Pugh and Wilde “completely false.”)
I could go on about the off-screen drama and the unusual press tour, and some of it (“spitgate”) is just noise. But a lot of it is the natural response to seeing something that does not align with the official narrative. The gap provokes interest, frustration. People will fill it with speculation that, yes, can be sexist and judgmental and extra, but also just curious.
Unfortunately, the discrepancy between what the film seems to be trying to do (or what Wilde says it’s doing) and what it’s actually doing has the opposite effect. The twist (spoilers, again) – that Pugh’s Alice has been trapped in a 50s simulation because her internet-poisoned boyfriend, Styles’s Jack, wants her to himself all the time – is shocking, in that it’s borderline offensive for a film Wilde has hyped for female pleasure to have said pleasure be nonconsensual, in the service of captivity. But it turns the brain off rather than on. You’d have to not think much to find it surprising, or to not poke holes in it immediately (What did the plane mean? Did no one have any sense of personal history? Why did Gemma Chan’s character turn on Chris Pine’s Frank?! Pugh is completely convincing throughout, but why did Alice, supposedly a smart character, confess her skepticism to Wilde’s Bunny and not Kiki Layne’s Margaret?) And you’d have to really not think to find it some sort of feminist statement.
The film takes some basic ideas – that some men find women’s employment a threat, crave submission and idolize a return to repressive 1950s gender norms – and strings them together with little coherence or characterization. It borrows heavily from other, better movies – the zeitgeist-y politics and sunken place pacification of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, the simulations of The Truman Show and The Matrix. Many of its plot beats mirror The Stepford Wives (the 1975 original, a thriller with roots in dark satire) – the sinister 50s housewife aesthetic, the spiky best friend, women asking “what do you think they do up there?” about their husbands, a forbidden men’s club. Both protagonists beat their husbands, unmasked as their captors, over the head with a household item. The Stepford Wives also stretched misogyny to ludicrous ends – the men, not nearly as likable or handsome as the DWD husbands, replace the women with robots – but its twist at least held up to narrative scrutiny.
Wilde does deserve credit as a director. She wrangled together a team of superior craft – lush cinematography from Matthew Libatique, vibrant costumes from Arianne Phillips, John Powell’s booming score that does more suspense work than any of Alice’s strange discoveries. As with the drug trip scene in her debut film, Booksmart, Wilde demonstrates a knack for conveying the destabilized brain – Alice’s flashbacks/memory jolts/hallucinations, often involving Busby Berkeley-esque dance sequences, are visually compelling, even in service of complete obviousness.
But for all the tricks, Don’t Worry Darling is basically devoid of suspense. Part of that is due to a press cycle in which Wilde has spoiled much of the movie. She’s compared it to The Truman Show, revealed before the release that Chris Pine’s character is based on Jordan Peterson, told Variety that she did a deep dive into “disenfranchised world of white men on the internet” via 4chan as research for the film, and lectured Maggie Gyllenhaal about incels. And part of that is that the film actually has nothing to say about feminism, or the internet, or society, other than misogyny is a helluva trip.
It reminds me of Promising Young Woman, another film hyped for its feminism and radical anger whose twist was doubling down on how bad some men can be; the film, which got a wide release in late 2020, followed a beautiful, white female protagonist, played by Carey Mulligan, singularly obsessed with revenge for sexual violence. Both films have visual panache and a female star whose performance exceeds the story; both felt anachronistic upon release, as if they were responding to the early days of the #MeToo movement in 2017, in which exposure of singularly, devastatingly bad men felt itself like revelation. Or, in the case of Don’t Worry Darling, when concern about internet-bred incels (involuntary celibates) spiked after the 2018 Toronto van attack, in which a man radicalized online killed 10 people.
I wrote at the time how Promising Young Woman demonstrated the limits of #MeToo rage on-screen, how the film’s insistence on everyone reaching their worst potential felt dead-ending; there’s little room to explore the slipperiness of complicity, the corrosive effects of trauma, in a bifurcated world of good and bad people. Don’t Worry Darling feels like an even shallower, cheaper version of this. Men are bad, and? Misogyny runs deep, and? There’s a well-shot sequence of Jack going down on Alice, to what end? It’s certainly not pleasure, given what we learn of Alice’s prison, nor is it in service of some greater idea.
In the end, I do root for Don’t Worry Darling, as a non-IP film and a big swing by a female film-maker. It’s fun to see on a big screen. But like the Victory Project, it’s also a ruse – selling one thing, delivering something else.