Don’t Worry Darling arrives in theaters this weekend with a ton of baggage, which is already drowning out coverage of the film itself. It’s had an absolutely cursed press tour, with star Florence Pugh being conspicuously absent from publicity events and all but silent on social media, director Olivia Wilde taking heat after posturing about firing disgraced male lead Shia LaBeouf (who it appears actually quit), and LeBeouf’s replacement Harry Styles rattling off absolute drivel in interviews and freaking out the entire internet by appearing to spit on Chris Pine. Add in the fact that the survival of Warner Bros. Pictures as we know it may well rest on the box office success of this film and next month’s Black Adam, and it’s basically impossible to consider Don’t Worry Darling outside of the context of its release. It’s not a movie anymore, it’s a meme, a public shitstorm.
Still, my hope was to sit down for my early screening with an open mind, as I think all films deserve. What I didn’t realize (and this was stupid of me, really) was that every other person attending the first public New York screening of Don’t Worry Darling was going to be a Harry Styles stan, and that absolutely everything the grown-up teen idol did on screen was going to elicit applause, screams, howls, or even sobs. To be clear, this is my mistake, and frankly I sort of love that there are still people who go to movies simply to gasp at a giant beautiful face. For me, however — someone who thinks Mr. Styles’ music is fine but to whom the man himself is Not Special — this screening was basically Hell.
It’s important for me to acknowledge that, because this environment has painted the way I responded to the film more than any of the publicity preamble. I think I was likely to agree with the early reviews that declared Don’t Worry Darling not to be worth all the fuss wrought by its press tour, but the fact that I saw it in a room full of people who went absolutely wild for it while simultaneously not seeming to engage with its actual content only intensified my feelings of “fucking whatever.” In reality, Don’t Worry Darling is probably exactly the movie that you think it is, and while it doesn’t suck, there’s not a single ounce of prejudice or criticism that I walked into the theater with that I did not also walk out with. The curse was not lifted. At best, I can offer the consolation that the circus surrounding Don’t Worry Darling has not tarnished a great film, only smudged an unexceptional one.
Florence Pugh Characters Should Probably Just Give Up on Dating
Alice (Florence Pugh) is a happy housewife living in an isolated mid-20th century planned community based around the mysterious Project Victory that employs her husband Jack (Harry Styles). Her life, like the lives of all the women on her block, revolves around her husband, for whom she gleefully cooks, cleans, and has great sex with. Her daily routine consists of housework, shopping, ballet class, and being ready by the door in a cocktail dress holding a glass of whiskey when her man gets home from work, and that seems to do it for her. But after her next door neighbor Margaret (KiKi Layne) suffers a mental breakdown, Alice begins to notice the strangeness of her world and her circumstances.
Why is Jack’s work at Project Victory so secretive, and why is no one allowed to leave town? What’s the deal with the project’s silver-tongued, steely-eyed leader Frank (Chris Pine), who all the men seem to worship? What’s the source of this strange tune that’s stuck in her head, and the brief flashes of images that don’t make any sense? Is she going insane, or is it the world that’s crazy? Mind-bending suspense ensues, deconstructing the vanity of male entitlement and the way men attempt to sell women servitude as privilege and captivity as freedom.
This review will be published ahead of the film’s wide theatrical release, and as such, I will be avoiding spoilers, but I will say this: Don’t Worry Darling will not surprise you. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve probably guessed about 80% of the plot, including all twists and reveals. At Cinemacon back in April, Olivia Wilde declared that her new film was inspired by The Truman Show, Inception, and The Matrix, but she needn’t have pointed it out — it’s basically those three movies layered on top of The Stepford Wives. IGN’s Siddhant Adlakha nailed it even harder when he said that Don’t Worry Darling “wants to be Get Out for white women, [but ends] up closer to Antebellum.”
Truthfully, if I could choose any modern director for other filmmakers of their generation to emulate, it would be Jordan Peele, and no one should have a monopoly on visually striking, high-concept, Serling-esque thrillers. Wilde’s choice of influences here is unimpeachable, and it would be unfair to knock her too harshly for wearing them on her sleeve when so many directors (Peele included) receive praise for channeling their heroes so deliberately. She’s also left her individual visual stylistic fingerprints on this film, and I remain confident in Wilde as a director (having also really dug Booksmart). The film features some effective, if obvious visual poetry, a strong sense of place and point of view, and a few individual images that I really like. (I love the way Wilde shoots parties, capturing frenetic social energy with either quick shaky takes or long, floaty ones, and always knowing which to use.)
On a story level, however, Don’t Worry Darling feels played out, transparent, and extremely didactic. Predictability is not, in itself, a sin, but it’s a problem when your R-rated psychological thriller seems to be written for a ninth grade literacy level. The film’s central metaphor might very well be a useful device for a high school sociology class, but also, Harry Styles gives head in this movie. Teacher’s not letting that slide.
Nobody’s Lining Up to Watch Shia LaBeouf Eat Pussy
As shallow as the material is, most of the cast is game. Florence Pugh may be unhappy with how the film’s marketing has been built around her sex scenes with Styles, but she’s clearly put her all into the role. The Gaslit Woman is the storytelling trope de jour, but Pugh owns it in part by seizing on weird yet perfect moments to be funny. Chris Pine is superbly cast as a suave and sinister square jaw, a dark mirror to his performance as sixties space heartthrob Jim Kirk. I would likely have found Harry Styles’ performance entirely adequate and forgettable if not for the oohs and aahs of my fellow moviegoers, which have instilled in me the same sense of frustration that I used to get at college open mics when a chiseled frat boy would receive screams of adoration for his very mediocre John Mayer covers. I don’t hate it, I only hate that you love it, and that he’s only doing it to make you scream for him.
In fact, as unremarkable as I find Styles’ performance in Don’t Worry Darling, I do think he’s the right man for the job, representing the proper balance of sweetness, sex appeal, danger, and emptyheadedness. I cannot imagine Shia LeBeouf in this role, even divorced from the allegations that he assaulted and abused his ex-girlfriend, FKA Twigs. As inappropriate as some of my fellow audience members’ lusty outbursts were in context, this role demands an actor who invites that kind of response. You need an Elvis, and Austin Butler was evidently not available. (Also, Styles’ presence alone is likely going to make the film back its $30 million budget, which Warner Bros. desperately needs.)
I would love to tell you that there’s more to Don’t Worry Darling than there appears to be, and that it’s more interesting to watch than it is to gossip about. It’s truly possible that, had I seen this film in a vacuum, I’d have been less critical and less cynical than I ended up being in this review. As best as I can, I try to start out every viewing experience rooting for the movie to knock me out. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few films do that to me this year. However, when it comes to Don’t Worry Darling, I simply cannot match the enthusiasm of a theater full of Harry Styles fans.
I wish them the best, I’m glad they had fun, and for the love of God, please let them tell every One Directioner they know to go out and see it four times and save the movie business. But for those of you for whom hungry stares from a handsome British pop singer are not worth the price of admission alone, you are better off waiting to see Don’t Worry Darling until after the storm has passed. You’ll come across it a year or so from now on HBO Max (or whatever its successor is), with only vague memories of the malignant media blitz and subsequent critical backlash, and when the closing credits roll, you’ll probably say to yourself, “That wasn’t so bad.”