By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles and Olivia Wilde
Directed by Olivia Wilde
Written by Katie Silberman
Warner Bros./New Line
Florence Pugh sparked Oscar talk in MIDSOMMAR, and while the material around her isn’t as surefooted in DON’T WORRY DARLING, she once again mightily impresses as a woman trapped in a milieu that becomes incrementally, increasingly strange and threatening. She and director Olivia Wilde’s sterling command of craft help the movie over some considerable bumps in its narrative road.
It’s Day 987 of the Victory Project, which has the male residents of a planned community somewhere in the American Southwest working on an apparently vital mission whose details they’re forbidden to share with their wives. Everything from the homes and cars to the attitudes toward women are straight out of the ’50s, though Alice (Pugh) doesn’t seem to mind at first–especially during a silverware-and-dish-flying sex-on-the-table scene with her husband Jack (Harry Styles) that you’d never see in a film from the aforementioned decade. The Project and its people are presided over by Frank (Chris Pine), who makes the kind of honeyed yet vaguely sinister speeches about devotion to the mission and the wonderfulness of their lives that signal all may not necessarily be well under the surface.
Sure enough, Alice begins noticing blemishes in her shiny existence, including the odd and suspicious (in both senses of the word) behavior of Margaret (KiKi Layne), who appears to be the sole Black woman in the community. Then, in one of the movie’s best sustained setpieces, Alice is alone on a trolley to the shopping center when she sees a small plane go down in the mountains beyond town, and goes looking for the crash site. Through the first half of DON’T WORRY DARLING, Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman (working from an original script by Carey and Shane Van Dyke) build a sense of unease under the bright, sunlit environment its characters inhabit, where everything seems regimented. Even the husbands leaving for work each morning pull their cars out of their driveways and onto the road in what resembles a choreographed dance.
The environment itself is also perfectly realized by production designer Katie Byron–when we get a look at a small scale model of the town, it’s no surprise that it looks entirely comprised of cul-de-sacs–and evocatively shot by Darren Aronofsky regular Matthew Libatique. After her more naturalistic debut film BOOKSMART, Wilde evinces a real talent here for capturing more expressionistic imagery, with occasional touches of the surreal, and creating compositions and transitions to sustain tension. She also gets fine work from her cast, led by Pugh, who can say more with a disbelieving or questioning or distraught look than many actors can express with pages of dialogue. As Frank, Pine oozes insinuating charm and menace, and a key confrontation between him and Alice is another of the film’s best scenes. Wilde herself provides jolts of energy as Alice’s outspoken best friend Bunny, while Styles’ highly touted lead acting debut as Jack is…perfectly fine; he’s up to the task, without suggesting any one of many other actors couldn’t have done just as good or better a job.
Scene by scene, the first 80 minutes or so of DON’T WORRY DARLING hold the attention and keep us anxious to find out what the inevitable Big Reveal is going to be. It’s in the home stretch up to and including that payoff, unfortunately, that the material lets the filmmakers and actors down. When we learn what’s actually going on, it’s less an “A-ha!” than a “Um, what?”; only some of the questions are resolved and a few big new ones are opened up, never to be satisfactorily answered. There are other holes in the plot, too; one key act of violence in the later going feels unmotivated, as if the scenes leading up to it got left on the cutting room floor.
The other issue is that the themes brought to the fore by the climactic revelation have been explored before, and sometimes better, in a number of films dating back to the ’70s. It’s a shame, since DON’T WORRY DARLING confirms Wilde’s gifts as a cinematic artist, and as a purveyor of vehicles for superb up-and-coming actresses. If the ending lets it down, it still contains enough that’s good–especially, it can’t be said enough, Pugh’s performance–to make it worth a look even with the foreknowledge that it’s not going to stick the landing.