The following article contains mild spoilers for the movie ‘Don’t Worry Darling’.
From feuds between the director and lead actress to accusations of spitting on co-stars, the lead-up to the release of Olivia Wilde’s highly anticipated sophomore film, Don’t Worry Darling, was nothing short of a modern pop culture phenomenon.
Don’t Worry Darling is a psychological thriller set in the utopian 1950s town of Victory, where Alice Chambers, a happily married woman, starts noticing how the place she lives isn’t as perfect as it appears to be.
And just like the town, the movie itself is deeply flawed. It opened to mixed reviews from audiences and critics but was a success at the box office, mainly due to the star power of co-lead Harry Styles.
Given that the entirety of the plot is just Alice (Florence Pugh) being surprised and gaslit by her situation, figuring out the mystery with 20 minutes left in the movie, and a rushed wrap-up, it’s understandable why it wasn’t received well. It’s both poorly paced and drawn out. Despite the magnetic score, beautiful set design, cinematography, and stellar performances by Florence Pugh, Kiki Layne, and Chris Pine, the movie never really holds together.
It also fails on a thematic level because it fails to confront its ideas. The film’s understanding and criticism of how the patriarchy functions and the ways it affects, undermines and restrains women are shallow.
The film is also limited in its worldview. One of the main characters, Margaret (Kiki Layne), is crucial in the original script, but some of her scenes were cut from the final version. This is unfortunate because, as a black woman, her character could have raised issues relating to intersectionality and explored how women of colour experience more severe versions of misogyny because of their race.
However, two older movies that inspired Don’t Worry Darling have a firmer grasp of their ideas – 1998’s The Truman Show and 1975’s The Stepford Wives.
The Truman Show is also about a character who begins to feel that nothing in their town feels exactly right. Though the movie’s central themes are very distinct from Don’t Worry Darling, it pushes them to their logical conclusion through its visuals and narrative. The Truman Show’s social critique is explicit when the final credits roll.
The Stepford Wives makes for an even less flattering comparison. The film may be almost 50 years old, but the funny thing is that its take on the same subject feels more modern and relevant. Joanna (Katharine Ross) is an aspiring photographer who moves to the suburbs with her family to find that most of the women of Stepford have an unwavering fixation on being the ‘perfect’ 50s American housewife.
The movie is paced deliberately, letting us learn about Joanna – her goals, dreams, and worries. She feels like a fully rounded character with depth and texture. And so, when the plot’s machinations lead her to the inevitable conclusion, it feels impactful and haunting. We get to know Joanna and who she is, and we understand what it means when the world tries to diminish her.
But the structure and pacing of Don’t Worry Darling don’t give us that same time with Alice. By the time we come to the grand reveal of the story, the only thing we really know about Alice is that she loves her job. Pugh tries valiantly to sell us on the character’s emotions, but she can only do so much to add humanity to an underwritten part.
It’s frustrating. Don’t Worry Darling had the star power and box office draw to start a nuanced conversation on a persistent issue. It even had clear inspiration for how to do so from earlier versions of similar stories. However, the film does not have anything fresh or exciting to say. And it makes one of the most basic mistakes. In a story about how women are objectified by society and robbed of their agency, the film doesn’t give its main character the inner life and personhood she deserves.