Don't Worry Darling

Don't Worry Darling is an example of a great actress doing superior work in a movie that doesn't deserve her. Florence Pugh continues her extraordinary career run as Alice Chambers, a 1950s housewife. She's married to Jack (Harry Styles), an engineer for a top secret business called Project Victory. Every day, he and the other men drive out into the middle of the desert for whatever they do, while the wives stay behind in a beautiful housing development, “supporting” their husbands with the very important task of making their lives easier so they can focus on their jobs. The head of Project Victory, Frank (Chris Pine), always makes sure to let the ladies know how vital they are, even as he keeps them in the dark about what the guys actually do.

On the surface, things seem relatively straightforward. Alice and her friends, including Bunny (Olivia Wilde), spend their days shopping and taking ballet classes when they aren't cooking and cleaning. Alice begins noticing strange goings-on, starting with the realization that the eggs she's baking with are empty. Things go downhill from there. She witnesses a plane crash that leaves no wreckage, notices another friend named Margaret (Kiki Layne) engaging in dangerous behavior, and finds a bizarre building out in the forbidden part of the desert. She thinks Project Victory is up to something shady, but Jack, Frank, and the town's doctor (Timothy Simons) try to gaslight her into thinking she's experiencing psychosis.

There is a long tradition of science-fiction movies about a lone person who realizes they're trapped in an artificial world. George Lucas's THX 1138 and Alex Proyas's Dark City are two of the best examples. These tales work when they dole out pieces of the puzzle at regular intervals, then tie everything together at the end. Don't Worry Darling doesn't hit that balance. The film has a frustrating tendency to repeat itself, providing scene after scene in which Alice hallucinates or notices something fishy. We aren't given any actual information that might deepen our understanding, leading the plot to feel monotonous. Wilde, who also directed, puts too much effort into creating glossy visuals, including menacing Busby Berkeley-type dancers and hallucinogenic montages. Consequently, she loses sight of basic storytelling.

Once the big reveal finally arrives...well, let's just say that it made the audience at my screening laugh hysterically. The explanation feels like a betrayal of the elements that have been set up. Surely, a better resolution could have been devised. Maybe one that commented meaningfully on outdated ideas of femininity, rather than just paying lip service. What we get comes so far out of left field -- and leaves so many unanswered questions – that it renders the journey pointless.

Furthering the problem is serious miscasting. Harry Styles isn't a strong enough actor to make Jack the kind of three-dimensional character he needs to be for the payoff to succeed. A performer with more experience might have brought Jack to life. Although he's not bad in the role per se, Chris Pine doesn't have the natural authority necessary for Frank. As the mastermind behind Project Victory, he ought to possess an uncomfortable mixture of charisma and sleaziness, instead of simply feeling like an entitled businessman.

Thank goodness, then, for Florence Pugh who, in every scene, effectively portrays a woman watching the world around her come crumbling down. She imbues Alice with a potent mix of vulnerability, fear, and, eventually, defiance. We care about her, even when we care about nothing else. The actress is a powerhouse here, single-handedly picking up Don't Worry Darling and carrying it as far as it will go. Together with visually stirring cinematography, Pugh elevates the misguided material to the point of watchability. In fact, she's so superior in the role that I felt angry at the movie for not rising to her level. No one this talented deserves to be stuck in such an ill-conceived bore.

out of four

Don't Worry Darling is rated R for sexuality, violent content and language. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.