Opening with a seductive stream of cocktails and party dresses, Olivia Wilde’s thriller for Don’t Worry Darling takes place in a vaguely post-war luxury community that is like a Barbie dream town built from collective nostalgic memory. Victory, as this domestic paradise is called, resembles just about any cool postcard depiction of 1950s suburban life put on screen in the last 40 years. That’s all part of the design of the movie. It is derived with purpose, if not exactly with a new vision.
Among the residents of this Rockwellian haven is Alice (Florence Pugh), a young housewife as immaculately dressed and cared for as the elegant house she ritually cleanses. When she’s not mopping and vacuuming, Alice drinks by the pool with the other neighborhood wives. She is married to Jack (the pop star Harry Styles), a bland British go-getter who lavishes her with status symbols and raves her over the table. Every morning, he climbs into his sleek silver convertible, joining a fleet of co-workers traveling across the desert to the company’s headquarters, the first image that implies there might be something a little stranger than just suffocating conformity. that occurs beneath the immaculate surfaces of this city.
Wilde and his screenwriter, Katie Silberman, are not quick to reveal that something. Instead, they let the audience gradually find out with Alice, as little cracks form in the facade of their “perfect” dollhouse life. What, she begins to wonder, is her husband doing out there in the desert, in a mysterious building that neither spouse can go near, supposedly for her own safety? “We’re changing the world,” insists Frank, the town’s founder and revered CEO of The Victory Project, played with a flash of motivational swagger by Chris Pine. He is quick to dismiss the growing anxieties of one of his employee’s wives (KiKi Layne, neglected for a slim role). Alice, however, begins to see some sense in her concern.
Audiences might be less interested in what’s going on behind the scenes of the fictional Victoria than what’s going on behind the scenes of this actual movie. Don’t Worry Darling it comes now after a press tour that turned into a long series of juicy dramatic anecdotes from the set: a celebrity laundry broadcast that had social media enthralled and may well have piqued public interest in the film. However, anyone who goes into it expecting telltale signs of a troubled production, or perhaps some sort of new classic from the camp of clashing stellar egos, may be disappointed to discover how little of that supposed chaos made it to the screen. In any case, Don’t Worry Darling is controlled to a fault.
It certainly represents a creative leap for Wilde, whose first feature film, the teen comedy book smartIt was much more enjoyable than fun. Switching to a completely different wavelength here, and casting herself in a key supporting role, Wilde maintains an atmosphere of hushed unease through the whisper of a hyperventilated sheet music, the repetitive hum of a radio set to the gold dial of the old and a production design that is a bit fruitful… off. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the director has constructed her second feature like an annotated essay: a bit of the feminist fear of The Stepford Wivesa bit of the repetitive domestic routine of Jeanne Dyelmanall threaded through a commentary on a modern male obsession with the traditional gender roles of a bygone era.
Wilde’s smartest move was to secure Pughwho slowly twists her cherubic joy into paranoid angst, like a reversal of her climactic close-up in midsummer. The most striking moments of Don’t Worry Darling Alice is found looking, figuratively or literally, through the mirror… or threatening to break it. At one point, she is suddenly immobilized against the bay window she is cleaning by a mysterious and restraining force, a surreal expression of the moment when someone discovers that she has been living every day of the short life of her in a fishbowl. However, Pugh can’t fully animate a film that eventually begins to spin a twist that the audience might discover long before Alice does.
What we are seeing is a dream of carefree, sunny prosperity fragmenting into a nightmare of oppressive confinement. But isn’t that the arc of every movie about the lie of the suburban dream and the regressive dead end of the nuclear family plan? By now, calling the clichéd image of 1950s two-car American bliss an illusion is its own cliché. It’s impossible to look at an incredibly bright and clean patch of front lawn and not think about the bugs David Lynch found squirming beneath it some three and a half decades ago. Don’t Worry Darling throw a fresh coat of paint on that premise. As a drama, it is prefabricated.
Don’t Worry Darling opens in select theaters on Friday, September 23.