Cinema Is Always Late: Don't Worry Darling
'Don't Worry Darling' has something to say, but it can't quite figure out how to say it.
Watching a film is having a relationship with the world through cinema. Art, any art (film, writing, painting…), should offer us a way to engage with the reality around us. It may not try or need to be explicit in this. A work of art is a real object that exists in a real world whose context is ever shifting. For some filmmakers, cinema is a process of of thinking on film—it is of the present, well-poised to ask questions of what’s happening outside the cinema house. But too often, instead of being on time (or of time), cinema is too late. If art exists as a way to transgress boundaries and allow for experiential insights and inquiries, Olivia Wilde’s new film, Don’t Worry Darling, does this in a way that is tepid, and timid in its reaction. Whatever Don't Worry Darling is trying to say, the conversation has passed it by.
Don’t Worry Darling centers around Alice (Florence Pugh) and her husband Jack (Harry Styles) and their life as part of the Victory Project led Frank (Chris Pine). They live in a sun-splashed ‘50s era company built town with other well-to-do (heteronormative) couples. Jack and the other men work as “technical engineer” developing “progressive materials” but neither Alice, nor any of the other wives knows what that means—and not many of them care. The wives of Victory spend their days shopping, or at the town pool; their nights are filled with cocktail parties and conversation. Pugh is a dynamic, dominating force in the movie, and she overpowers a flat, affectless, Styles. Her character is strong and confident and makes you wonder why she would be there in the first place. The rest of the actors aren’t given much room, or direction. And at times it feels like everyone is in a different film.
At its heart, Don’t Worry Darling wants to be a film about the way men control women through lies, coercion, guilt…the list goes on. It wants to be scary, menacing, with Frank its alpha male Jordan Peterson-esque villain. The film wants to make you feel a little sick to your stomach as you try to figure out just what is really going on, what is really beneath the shiny facade. The film looks gorgeous from the costume design, camerawork, and the craggy moonscape that lies just outside of the town. But there is no real tension, nothing that makes us look for danger around the mid-century modern corners of the Palm Springs setting.
This setting, with its manicured oddities and resistance to chaos, and Eisenhower era vibes, should heighten the tension, should scream its untrustworthiness, but it only serves to instill the film with a sense of nostalgia that works against what the filmmaker is trying to say: building in a kind of excuse for these kind of men, a way for these men to say “look, all we want to do is take care of you, provide for you…” These men of Don’t Worry Darling are keen to point out that this is all for the women: all the work they do, everything they build, the environment they’ve created.
The world of the film is a structure built by a man, and structures have inherent rules. This one is built to allow the male inhabitants to act in accordance to their whims and desires and own sense of flawed logic in a way that they are unable to outside of the structure. The use of language reinforces this “Victory.” At a large nightclub gathering, Frank leads the crowd in a call and response of “Whose world is this?” To which the men respond in rabid unison “Ours!” There is constant talk and emphasis of order vs. chaos. These ideas only matter inasmuch as they make us examine our own structures, our own language of hegemony. In the movie, the women seem to shrug their shoulders and offer a round of applause.
Not only is Don’t Worry Darling stuck in second wave feminism, but it is also engaging in a kind of white feminism. Alice’s increasing curiosity and fear about what is really going on is further stoked as she observes her neighbor Margaret (Kiki Layne) acting stranger and stranger. The rest of the women in Victory have shunned Margaret and she becomes an example of what not to do, how not to behave. As much as Alice may want to help, she’s unable to stop Margaret from committing an act of self-harm that lacks the heft that it should. Margaret, here, embodies a poor-choice metaphor of the long suffering in silence African American woman whose death provides opportunity for Alice to fill the role of white savior.
This is a “something-isn’t-quite-right-here” film where on the surface things look one way but beneath is a terrible truth—that reveal should shock, it should serve as a gut punch to how we view the reality outside of the theater. It should, at least, seek to tell us something new, fresh, or different about the world we live in—at least allow us to see that world in a somewhat different light. Don’t Worry Darling knows its influences: The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, The Truman Show, and because Olivia Wilde wants to be a topical filmmaker, Get Out. But if it tries to disappear within those references, and then reappear as its own entity, it only winds up being weighed down and judged in relation to those reference films.
If Don’t Worry Darling is a film of ideas, those ideas get reduced to “men want to keep women pregnant and in the kitchen.” The twist, when it comes (and we can see it coming), doesn’t shock as it should, and it does nothing to upend the reductive ground work that has been laid. Instead, it feels like a lost opportunity to engage in the current discourse of the myriad ways men are controlling women’s bodily autonomy. The movie’s failing is its failure to address, or shine a harsh light on, the real sinisterness of even the most banal of men’s desires.
Brock Kingsley is a writer, artist, critic, and educator living in Fort Worth, Texas. His work has appeared in publications such as Brooklyn Rail, Paste Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere.