Weekender: ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ is intriguing, disturbing and potentially Pugh’s best career performance

Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Chris Pine and Olivia Wilde are pictured (from top left to bottom right). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

From critics’ early reviews to Harry Styles “spitting” on Chris Pine at the premiere, “Don’t Worry Darling” (2022) is a film that seems to be everywhere, despite not having its theatrical release until Sept. 23. With a plethora of rumors of drama on set and Styles’ fans desperate to see their favorite artist in his latest film, it comes as no surprise that the “Don’t Worry Darling: The Live IMAX Experience,” which occurred on Sept. 19 in 21 locations, sold out within 24 hours. At the AMC Boston Common 19, the theater was packed at the 7:30 p.m. Monday screening, everyone eager to see what might be the most talked-about movie of the year

A psychological thriller directed by Olivia Wilde, with a screenplay co-written by Katie Silberman, who previously worked with Wilde on the critically-acclaimed “Booksmart” (2019), “Don’t Worry Darling” follows Jack (Harry Styles) and Alice (Florence Pugh) as they live out their married life in a seemingly perfect utopia. This utopia, known as Victory, is an idyllic 1950s town where everything fits together like a puzzle and nothing is out of place. The men work at the Victory Project, lead by Frank (Chris Pine), while the women stay at home attending to household duties and spending time socializing with one another. 

Early on in the film, it is clear Alice does not belong or feel comfortable among the women of Victory. In her ballet class with many of the wives of the town, everyone dances with a smile on their face and a certain energy in their movement. Alice does not. She seems stiff, has a very unenthusiastic expression and does not move in sync with the other women, prompting Shelley (Gemma Chan), who is married to Frank, making them essentially the president and first lady of the town, to correct her dancing

In a later scene at Frank and Shelley’s home where they are celebrating a new couple moving to Victory, another citizen, Margaret (KiKi Layne) has a sudden outburst. Margaret says that the citizens should not be in Victory, to which all the other members of the town seem shocked and concerned. Margaret is quickly whisked away from the crowd by her husband, only for Alice to bump into her moments later. While sitting with her husband, Margaret sees Alice and makes comments implying that Victory is not what it seems and there is something wrong with this perfect town. This is the first crack in the glass that will eventually result in Alice further investigating Victory and the Victory Project.

Alice’s doubts about the truth behind the Victory Project and a plane sighting over the town prompt her to leave Victory and explore outside the town lines, the one rule all the women are supposed to follow. Alice’s deviation from Victory law is revealed to her fellow citizens in a riveting dinner scene. Prior to the dinner scene, Frank confronts Alice about her transgression and says how he’s been waiting for someone to challenge him, which ignites a fire in Alice. The dinner begins with Alice sliding into a seat at the head of the table, a seat which was intended for Jack. With Alice at one end and Frank at the other, the visual reflects these two characters’ relationship — the two are opposites, enemies, but also equals in this moment. 

In this scene, Alice poses a question to Jack and the fellow members of the community, a question that many viewers also have at this point in the film, “Do you even know what the Victory Project actually is?” Alice’s rapid-fire questions attempt to sow seeds of doubt about Victory in her neighbors but ultimately result in them thinking she is insane and leaving her home where she is left only with Jack, who now is also questioning her stability and intentions. 

The twists in this film are executed with precision. Every plot twist, every time Alice chips away at the illusion of this utopia comes at the perfect time and leaves the viewer on the edge of their seat desperately waiting to find out what happens next. Nothing is as it seems in Victory and “Don’t Worry Darling” ensures that just as Alice is questioning the truth behind Victory, the viewers are questioning right alongside her. 

“Don’t Worry Darling” is Alice’s film and Pugh delivers a remarkable performance. Alice’s doubts about Victory do not come suddenly. From the beginning of the film, it’s clear she has never fit in there. Pugh flawlessly captures the slow burn from uncertainty to full knowing that Victory is not the place everyone perceives it to be. She is the shining star of this film and it rivals her performance in “Midsommar” (2019) as potentially the best performance of her career thus far. 

Of course, one cannot talk about Alice without talking about Styles. Styles’ acting in this film is mediocre. His performance stands out, not due to talent, but because, starring alongside an Academy Award nominee and an ensemble cast of some of the best, most well-known actors, it becomes even more clear he is out of his element. Styles’ performance feels like something out of a CW show. Emphasized by the countless giggles from the crowd at the AMC whenever Styles had a serious scene, his acting was most definitely distracting and slightly cringey.

The ensemble cast is strong. Unlike Styles, their performances are not off-putting and they contribute to the overall sense of unison among the community members. Chan masterfully embodies her character’s sense of strength and pride that is similar to that of Frank, just more toned down. Pine truly makes the audience fear him with his character’s role as corrupt overlord, while also making them admire his character’s ability to manipulate. Wilde, finally, portrays this perfect citizen who loves her town, making viewers despise her for her treatment of Alice when she goes to Bunny for help. Wilde executes her character’s arc perfectly and when the truth is revealed about her character at the end of the film, leaves viewers shocked and also somewhat sad. 

Additionally, Wilde’s directing deserves applause. Every shot feels organic and brings the audience further into the world of Victory. It is clear that Wilde meticulously thought about every shot, every angle, every movement of the camera and her work paid off. Wilde’s decision not to play Alice, which was her original plan, proved to be the right choice because it not only allowed for Pugh’s exceptional performance but also allowed her to put more of her own time into directing. 

As mentioned in Wilde’s interview prior to the screening of the film, “Don’t Worry Darling” is a film that should be seen in theaters and especially IMAX if given that opportunity. IMAX, which prides itself on immersive movie experiences, contributed greatly to the theatrical experience. The ability to feel every crystal clear sound and allow yourself to get lost in the vibrant, detailed shots makes the experience of watching the film all the better. From the sizzling of bacon in the cooking scenes to the rumble of the planes that soar above Victory, the pristine sound quality that IMAX provides allows audiences to truly feel like they are living “Don’t Worry Darling” as opposed to just watching it.

In terms of story, the film is successful in providing commentary on gender roles within family and married life as well as highlighting the dangers of male manipulation. Scenes where Jack and Frank attempt to gaslight Alice into thinking she is crazy for doubting the Victory Project illustrate their desperate desire for control and, though set in a fictional 1950s town, has a sense of familiarity. An abundance of films have tackled the idea of men attempting to control women, but what makes “Don’t Worry Darling” stand out is that up until the end of the film, the audience does not understand just how twisted these men are, especially Jack

Despite some early critics’ opinions, likely influenced by the abundance of rumors surrounding the film and the cast, “Don’t Worry Darling” is impressive and gripping. There is a certain level of predictability to the film, however, there are many twists that catch the audience off-guard and make the over-two-hour film worthwhile. The stellar performances from a majority of the cast, Styles not included, are captivating and each actor captures the complexities of their character with ease. 

Though much of this review praises Wilde, she fell short in the marketing aspect of this movie with her talk of the sexual aspects of it, which actually become somewhat disturbing after the truth about Victory is revealed. This is not the sexual film about “female pleasure” that Wilde described, but rather one about male manipulation at the expense of women. Many questions remain unanswered at the end of the film, which may be Wilde’s and Silberman’s intention; even so, the lack of closure and explanation seems too much — there needs to be some tying up of loose ends. With an outstanding ensemble, fantastic performance from Pugh and an overall great, immersive film, “Don’t Worry Darling” is a must-watch, though it might be hard to ignore Styles’ mediocre acting at times.


Summary

With an outstanding ensemble, fantastic performance from Pugh and an overall great immersive film, “Don’t Worry Darling” is a must watch.

4 stars
COPYRIGHT 2022 THE TUFTS DAILY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.