Florence Pugh shines in this Stepford Wives style mystery drama, even if the audience might figure out the big reveal before the characters do.
- Florence Pugh is excellent in the lead role
- Great cinematography and overall aesthetic
- It's easy to get lost in the chic glamour... with a sinister undertone
- You'll probably guess what's going on before the characters do, which is frustrating
- There's some heavy-handed symbolism which might not work for everyone
Olivia Wilde’s second outing as a director following 2019's coming-of-age comedy Booksmart brims with drama and mystery — and that’s just a description of Don’t Worry Darling’s scandal-rich promotional tour.
Did Wilde fall out with star Florence Pugh, conspicuously absent from a number of the film’s red-carpet events? Did she sack original leading man Shia LaBeouf because of his "combative" acting style? Or did he quit of his own accord?
There is, even more, to puzzle over when it comes to the film itself, a psychological thriller set in a seemingly idyllic 1950s American town belonging to the enigmatically utopian Victory Company. Pugh and Styles' young married couple, Alice and Jack, appear to live a picture-perfect life in this suburban oasis in the Southern Californian desert, where the men set off for work each day in their pastel-colored, big-finned cars while their adoring wives spend their time contentedly dusting and polishing and cooking, or shopping, taking dance classes and gossiping at the local pool.
On the surface, it is a world of chic glamour, but if you are picking up a Stepford Wives vibe you are not alone. Alice also thinks there is something wrong with this picture. What exactly do Jack and the other husbands do at the Victory Project headquarters each day? Working on the "development of progressive materials" says Victory’s charismatic boss Frank, played with Rat Pack cool and a hint of menace by Pine.
What are the earthquake-like tremors that occasionally ruffle Victory’s daytime calm? And why is Alice experiencing hallucinatory visions in black-and-white of female dancers performing Busby Berkeley routines? Is she cracking up, the fate that befell Alice's troubled neighbor Margaret (KiKi Layne)? That, at least, is what everyone maintains after Margaret began questioning the rules of life in Victory.
In all likelihood, you will probably be ahead of Alice when it comes to working out what is going on and frustrated when Wilde and screenwriters Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke finally show their hand. Before then, Wilde and her cohorts take big swipes at patriarchy and hit us over the head with some heavy-handed symbolism. Watch out for the scene in which Alice, feeling increasingly oppressed by her lot, wraps her head in suffocating clingfilm.
The film's look, however, can’t be faulted. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique (previously Oscar-nominated for Black Swan and A Star Is Born) and production designer Katie Byron give the film’s world a high-gloss perfection — Wilde has cited high-society photographer Slim Aarons’ sleek images of midcentury Palm Springs as a visual reference for the film. The impossible luster only adds to the pervading sense of unease.
But the film's biggest asset is the terrific Pugh, who draws us into Alice's gathering paranoia and her all-consuming determination to uncover Victory's secrets. She predictably outclasses Styles (in only his second film following his debut in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and, to be fair, better here than you may have heard) but is well-matched in her scenes with Pine, who brings a chilling, cult-leader edge to the man at the heart of the film’s mystery.
Don't Worry Darling is in theaters from Friday, September 23.
A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.
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