We may never fully understand the controversy surrounding director Olivia Wilde’s second film, Don’t Worry Darling. (Seems like a disagreement over whether Shia LaBeouf quit or was fired from the film, whether or not he made co-star Florence Pugh uncomfortable, and what exactly was that whole fake-spitting move by Harry Styles about?) The hullabaloo at Venice Film Festival just added to the parade of “?????”s surrounding the production, but the film itself is a truly bananas rewiring of feminist backlash horror films like The Stepford Wives (the original 1975 version, not the stupid remake) crossed maybe with several Black Mirror episodes.
Jack (Harry Styles, replacing LaBeouf) and Alice (Florence Pugh) play a perfect couple, in a seemingly perfect, desert-surrounded community called Victory. They have hot sex on just about every surface of their lovely bungalow-style home in the middle of what feels like 1960s Palm Springs, California. The wives of Victory see off their seemingly perfect husbands in their shiny ‘50s roadsters after cooking and feeding them perfectly high-cholesterol breakies of eggs, bacon and buttered toast each morning. Where do they drive off to? A top-secret project involving “the development of progressive materials,” we’re told.
It must be said, the film coalesces around Pugh, who gives a riveting performance as a wife who’s beginning to feel like she’s being gaslit by everyone in Victory. We are meant to experience her growing paranoia, a sense of not knowing what the hell is going on, much like the films that inspired Wilde, such as Rosemary’s Baby and Black Swan, with their highly subjective (feminine) viewpoints. And Wilde, whatever the controversy on the production set, does go full gonzo in directing this follow-up to her more indie, intimate and funny Booksmart. She works here with that film’s screenwriter, Katie Silberman, in concocting a paranoid #timesup psychological thriller that swings for the fences.
Unfortunately, it shows its hand a little early. Within five minutes, we know something ain’t right in Victory. The place is run by some guru alpha male named Frank (Chris Pine) whose forward-moving, positive-thinking bromides are broadcast everywhere in the little community, droning out lines such as “There’s beauty in control… There’s grace in symmetry… We move as one…” Subtle it isn’t, but it’s instantly creepy, as is the retro styling of the wives in town, from the hair and makeup to Wilde (playing side-eyeing neighbor Bunny) constantly hoisting a cocktail in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. Is it modern times, or mid-20th century? Hard to tell. Lest we get a sense of kitsch or camp (the kind that permeates, say, the suburbia of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands), Pugh plays this like it’s the most convincing psychological disorder ever. We don’t quite know what the hell is happening in Victory (no spoilers), but we know it’s making her go buggy inside. We believe it.
Wilde is good at pacing, ratcheting up the emotional turmoil through some puzzling, visually stunning sequences.
(And it’s not the first time Pugh has seemingly found herself plunked down in the middle of a weird, paranoia-inducing cult that makes her a little crazy. Talking about Midsommar, of course.)
The other thing that prevents us from completely surrendering to the “mystery” here (one being why there’s no comma in the title) is that we’ve seen so many movies and shows about conformist suburbia and its true nature that it can all feel a little too familiar. One gets whiffs of The Truman Show, Get Out, a little bit of the vibe from Lost, maybe even The Matrix. So the message is received early, and repeated dully for a bit too long before the denouement.
The film does eventually reveal itself as a statement of sorts, not just about the nature of modern regressive society and gaslighting and #MeToo, but on the nature of surrendering one’s path of ease and comfort for something… a little more challenging. Like real life.
Director Wilde explained that her psychological thriller “is my love letter to the movies that push the boundaries of our imagination… Imagine a life where you have everything you ever wanted… What would it take for you to give that up?”
We can only speculate on the chemistry (or lack thereof) between Pugh and Shia in early production, but here, the actress and pop singer Styles do simulate a great deal of oral sex onscreen (more than might be expected in 1950s suburbia), which Pugh frets will become the “most viral” parts of her performance. Time will tell.
Wilde is good at pacing, ratcheting up the emotional turmoil through some puzzling, visually stunning sequences. (Fil-Am cinematographer Matthew Libatique deserves much credit for the distinctive look, which can swing from Leave it to Beaver to Black Hole Sun video in a nanosecond.) There’s an underlying thread here of males trying very hard to keep it together in a world facing some unknown, unseen threat — a reaching for comfort which requires a support system that comes at a very high price. And as Alice comes to understand that price, it’s increasingly written on her face that something’s gotta give.
But don’t worry. No spoilers, darling.
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Don’t Worry Darling shows in Manila Sept. 28. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.