There just isn’t enough story to carry Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling” through a feature length running time. While the premise is there, the screenplay (from Katie Silberman, and Carey & Shane Van Dyke) fails to have anything new or interesting to say about the film’s themes, nor does Wilde have the skills as a director to pull it all off.
In an attempt to mix different genres, the film does not work as psychological thriller and bores as a skewering of domestic despair. To pull back the curtain on any more of its genre-hopping would reveal too much.
Regarding the film’s failure to impress, the screenplay is the number one culprit.
If one can’t figure out the outcome within the first fifteen minutes, one isn’t paying attention. The script all but screams the turns and twists long before they are revealed, leaving the audience with no surprises.
Alice (the always excellent Florence Pugh) is a suburban housewife in happy love with her husband, Jack (an unconvincing Harry Styles). The two lovebirds live in the 1950s California desert town named Victory.
The land is owned and run by something called the Victory Project, which requires its staff, and their families live in this sunlit paradise.
Matthew Libatique’s camerawork and the quality production design look good but apes the same visual territory we have seen many times before. We have long witnessed tongue-in-cheek skewering of America’s cookie-cutter tucked away communities, achieved most successfully in Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” from 1990.
It is immediately clear that something is not right regarding Victory’s heaven on earth community.
Dropping hints of unease from scene to scene, Wilde fails to a take time to set up the story, nor is she interested in creating a sense of character. We feel sorry for Pugh because the screenplay tells us to.
The picture jumps right in and feels too hurried to get to the good stuff at the peril of a proper set up.
By the time a wife named Margaret (KiKi Layne), gives Alice her first sense that all may not be as it seems, the scene fails to hit and, frankly, seems like a rip-off of a pivotal moment from “Get Out” where a certain character opens the main character’s eyes and mind to something more sinister.
Chris Pine plays the puppet master of the whole scenario, Frank. Pine does as well as he can with what he must work with, which is the same type of stone-faced guru who controls weak minds that is right out of central casting. Pine is a decent enough actor and almost achieves something special but is let down by the script and Wilde’s I need to get to the next scene quickly!-type of filmmaking. As written and portrayed, Frank is far from captivating.
Another key to the film’s failure is how the director botched the film’s most important scene, a moment between a recently “awakened” Alice and Frank.
The two sit at a dinner table trading viciously dangerous dares and revelations. The sequence had the potential to be a powerful mental tennis match between the heroine and the possible (obvious) villain, instead Wilde lets the two characters get off a few moments and the scenes ends abruptly, without dramatic fire and none of the promised psychological warfare.
Wilde is giving us a taste of what could have been before whisking us off to the next moment, leaving us wanting more.
It’s easy to pick at the countless film references Wilde is going after (“The Stepford Wives”, David Lynch, etc.), yet she’s unable to shape them into a cohesive whole.
Wilde’s filmmaking here is as fractured as Alice’s dreams.
Florence Pugh continues to prove she is one of her generation’s best actresses. She chooses roles that are constantly challenging here, and one can certainly see the draw of playing Alice. As she always does, Pugh highly impresses, but kid let down by Wilde’s sloppy filmmaking and the over-telegraphed script.
Harry Styles doesn’t get off so easily. There is purpose to the way his character is designed, but Styles has zero depth as an actor and even less range. It is reported that Shia LeBeouf was originally cast in Styles’ role. Whatever the reason for his exit from this project, I am sure he would have brought a weight to Alice’s husband that Styles just cannot achieve. Sadly, it is his character that becomes the most important.
Once the film gets to its supposed slam-bang finale, it becomes quite laughable, as a couple of ridiculous chase sequences are handled so ineptly that moments of desired shock become fodder for uncontrollable giggles. Make no mistake, whatever you will think of the film, the final act is insipid and quite absurd.
I cannot speak on where the plot takes the audience once Alice has her “awakening,” except to say it might have worked with a stronger screenplay and a director better suited to the material.
Shooting from one tired cinematic reference point to another, audiences have seen this kind of thing before and much better.
“Don’t Worry Darling” is a good idea sabotaged by inconsistent filmmaking and a screenplay that has nothing new or meaningful to say.