Perhaps it was for the better that Warner’s marketing for their one remaining cross with adult sophistication on marquees this fall sustained a perpetual ambiguity. And that might be just what Olivia Wilde likes when crafting a film from her personal chair. We saw that three years ago, with Booksmart setting a future model for high school comedies, interjecting with a realistic trepidation. In her sophomore film Don’t Worry Darling, her aim is similar, though targeting the realm of dystopian psych thriller, mingled with a starlet’s lip gloss. Think Suspicion, The Stepford Wives, or Logan’s Run. All three of those surely must’ve been on Wilde’s mind while attempting to modernize the jaded, poorly aged mystique of domesticity, back when it was a science shrouded by plasticine smiles.
Not all appears too good to be true in the newfound suburban community of Victory, CA. Right from its first glances, it gives off the vibe of a time capsule capped by an invisible dome, where its beauty and tranquility is very self-contained. In it we find Alice (Florence Pugh), a doting housewife who, at least initially, is reveling in its benefits, while husband Jack (Harry Styles) navigates the rigors of a daily grind buried in secrecy. While the men are away, all the missuses are wont to cool off by the pool, sip cocktails, and then prep the kind of dinners to rival the present-day Instagram churn. And it’s a fair routine that only works, so long as the ladies don’t venture off too far from town. That becomes more of a chore when unfamiliar sights and one neighbor’s (KiKi Layne) raving demeanor alludes to a darker illusion protected behind the curtain, thus threatening the guise of perfection.
This pecking order does face plenty of pressure to protect its stability, with Jack entrusted to carry forth its sagaciously masculine leadership roles, at the behest of suave, mysterious figurehead Frank (Chris Pine). While Jack may be one not to hide his more sensual aspirations with Alice after a long day, Frank is more casual, level-headed when establishing control. One exercises glamour, the other logic. Both carry opposing views over a single stereotype, where a woman is remarked as “crazy” by a superior male, when merely challenging an established belief. That, in turn, places Alice on the fringes, neither willing nor able to trust anyone as a once perfect society rears its uglier side. If it was meant to be played with in a farcical way, it was not at all apparent.
Wilde is at least careful not to flick the figurative light switch so recklessly, shuttering on and off before staying off midway, well timed to leave a distorted chill up the spine. Of course, it’s easy to enter the world of Victory enthralled by its opulent urbanity. Much of its runtime, as Wilde stages it, from a screenplay credited to Katie Silberman (Isn’t It Romantic), and Carey & Shane Van Dyke (The Silence) is spent upselling the community’s highs. As time passes in the middle third, Alice’s derived panic exposes those buried wrinkles, revelatory though growingly cynical. And by the end, we’re cut off from its forward momentum in such a fleeting fashion, its justification comes off bleak and deserted. And its tackling of ancient clichés can only settle for skating above the surface, lost in the sci-fi fervor.
Don’t Worry Darling is an unevenly mixed bag, which Wilde strives to steer on a fine curve, MacGyver’ing her way to the finish line. Her angle on the material still lends to an experience swimming in visual splendor, caught in every errant camera push-up. Keeping that Hitchcockian influence in the front passenger seat, the increasing dread does manage to grow on the eyes, persistent both inside and out, in real time or in music video-like flashbacks. The lattermost thread serves as the grandest showcase for production designer Katie Byron (C’Mon C’Mon), blending a Berkeley-esque flair with Marilyn Monroe-level sex appeal in Alice’s mind. Those modest touches do peg down any lingering doubts over its late 50s/early 60s motif. Only to have that upended with an ambient, ghostly John Powell (The Call of the Wild) score heavy on strings and choral wails.
Seeing Pugh work often elicits a similar reaction, as she blends in with the moment, standing out for most easily her defining role as an actress. Terminology I do not use lightly, and almost never when the work can’t completely match or surpass a performer’s skill. Here, under Wilde’s direction, a handful of exceptions can be made as Pugh dances around a fractured psyche like it were a mad genius in study. Styles possesses a calming presence as her hubby, mature and sensible. Chemistry between the two is far from lost, always genuine, sensuality clear-cut. Pine makes for a careful, if not blindly overt foil, and Layne can succeed fine with channeling unchecked stress.
Wilde does throw herself into the mix as Bunny, another in Alice’s gal-pal clique, and she can often liven up the scene, once she can look past micromanaging it. Other neighbors like Shelley (an underutilized Gemma Chan), Violet (Sydney Chandler), Peg (Kate Berlant), and Dean (Nick Kroll) are interesting enough for camaraderie’s sake. Kroll can’t help but stick out like a sore thumb, given his more comedic background. Of the entire cast, he might be the lone fish out of water, no less unfazed in his process.
If only the entire exercise could’ve had its act together as effectively as those appearing on screen. Like the viewer, they’re all enduring a troubling stiffness in tone and trope. Whenever Wilde pivots, the mood takes a hit, as does its aim to empower. The entertainment value never fades, with a coil of tension still leaving one guessing on its abrupt climax. The territory, however, runs dry with that Californian heat, stopping short of venturing deeper in profundity, in its quest to trounce toxic patriarchs where they lie. All this, despite Pugh excelling with her case of emotional complexity. She’s one of the few aspects saving Don’t Worry Darling from falling in a pit of despair, essentially carrying the final half hour on her capable shoulders. Even still, with this venture looking like a one-and-done, it would be rather tricky to escape its hilly incline before then, forever wondering where the suspenseful dismay ran off to. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Don’t Worry Darling opens in theaters September 23, previews begin 4PM September 22; rated R for sexuality, violent content and language; 123 minutes.