Don't Worry Darling (2022), Olivia Wilde [2/5]
Updated: Oct 28
Don't Worry Darling (2022) has all the makings of a Gen Z smash hit; a talented lead actress who appeared in the biggest horror movie of 2019, a pop star/sex symbol co-star, and a clever press tour that capitalized on the movie's viral TikTok drama at Venice Film Festival and on set. Despite these flashy ingredients, Olivia Wilde's feminist response to the online "trad" right squanders an interesting concept with some of the most trite psychological thriller tropes ever put to screen. "Good concept, bad execution" one might say, yet I'd argue Don't Worry Darling's problems start as early as the idea stage.
Don't Worry Darling is Wilde's critique of the archetype of the online masculinist charlatan preying on the disillusionment of modern man with Fascistic Mad Men fantasies. Antagonist Frank, played by a seething Chris Pine, is some amalgamation of Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, and Mark Zuckerberg, a charismatic traditionalist who wants to use his podcast and virtual reality technology to return to the gender dynamics and idealistic order of the 1950s. This Victory Project, a sort of Metaverse MAGA, offers resentful incels like Jack — Harry Styles' character — the opportunity to role-play as Don Draper: to be the sole breadwinner in a man's world, to be greeted at the door by a libidinous housewife with a cocktail after work, and to be a part of a movement of likeminded individuals. Yet Frank doesn't offer as much to the women, some of whom are held against their will in the Victory Project simulation. Alice (played in the standout performance of the film by Florence Pugh) is betrayed by her husband Jack in the real world where she's a successful but overworked surgeon and he's a 4chan-surfing, disheveled recluse.
Despite engaging with the iconography of the culture war, the film's formal elements as a psychological thriller fail. They don't solicit intrigue, advance the plot, or even broaden the scope of the characters. Alice begins to suspect that something is off in her idyllic cul-de-sac when the community shows apathy toward a neighbor slitting her own throat and a biplane crashing in the desert. But instead of having Alice investigate these occurrences and begin to unravel a greater mystery, Wilde simply gives many iterations of the same scene: Alice begins to hallucinate, she reacts with alarm to the disturbed hallucinations (like a wall crushing her or her distorted reflection in a mirror), and those around her recoil in judgment. This sequence (hallucination, reaction, "she's so crazy!") plays out so many times, one begins to wonder if the film is aping Groundhog Day along with The Truman Show.
The one point in the film that gives Alice some agency, allowing her to depart from the fixed route of a trolley and investigate the plane crash, is quickly intercepted by another hallucination dream sequence before Alice wakes in her bed. Why not have Alice sneak into a Victory Project bunker and overhear Frank and his workers plotting? Why can't Alice rally other women and begin a resistance force? Why not use each hallucination to build toward's the next stage of realization, allowing Alice to piece together what she learns from each episode and begin to solve the case?
There have been a number of posts on film Twitter mocking responses to the film's politics. One girl's TikTok, heralding DWD as the 1984 of our time, was specifically lambasted for its (and the film's) lack of nuance. Even the movie's review in The New Yorker, surely the bastion of progressive thought on gender issues, argued the film lacked ambivalence and was too obvious about its patriarchal metaphors. Yet I would have enjoyed a movie that achieves what this post and Don't Worry Darling itself thinks it achieves. I would have loved to see a well-crafted psychological thriller about modern sexual politics. Unfortunately, the film struggles to tell an engaging story, let alone a brilliant Orwellian allegory.
To make matters worse, Olivia Wilde wasn't subtle with her symbolism; she told press directly that Frank was based on Jordan Peterson, calling him "a pseudo-intellectual hero to the incel community." Even those with contempt for Jordan Peterson admit that he is more a weepy self-help guru than a swashbuckling charlatan; his recent appearances in normie memes mock the way he is brought to tears by every slight of modern existence.
Chris Pine's character is a different animal altogether; a stoic, conniving tech mastermind who commands his suited myrmidons to dance for his amusement. Jordan Peterson has also spent his career explicitly decrying authoritarianism, dedicating many of his lectures to the 20th Century Soviet Union and how it killed and oppressed millions. Frank, on the other hand, is an authoritarian cult leader bent on domination. Yes, both Jordan Peterson and Frank speak to the disillusionment of modern man, but where Peterson advocates for personal responsibility and making your bed, Frank advocates for restraining women against their will and forcing them into a 1950s simulation. Couldn't Wilde dig a little deeper to find a more suitable boogeyman? Wilde misses the mark here and fundamentally misunderstands the contemporary discourse.
Despite these narrative and conceptual hiccups, Don't Worry Darling sports some of the sharpest set design I've seen this year, capturing it in precise, stunning photography. Diana Budds wrote an excellent piece on DWD's set design for CURBED. In it, Budds explores the film's real world locations like the Canyon View Estates, a suburb in Palm Springs designed by William Krisel (a darling of desert modernism). Set decorators Ashley Bussell and Rachael Ferrara echo the 1950s idealism of Frank and his cult with Palm Springs antiques (like a Sylvania TV set), conversation pits, teak furniture, and silver coupes. This explains why Budds likens Darling's mid-century utopia to a Slim Aarons photograph.
Surely this mid-century optimism is part of what makes Frank's villainous vision appealing to many — following the disillusionment of the late 60s and 70s (Vietnam, Watergate, the Psychedelic Revolution, etc.) many developed rose-colored glasses about a simpler time that existed before the decline of the American Empire. In aesthetics, this shift from utopian idealism to utilitarian pragmatism explains the great leap from modernism to postmodernism. The aesthetic elements are there, Wilde just doesn't know how to use them to achieve the film's goal.
Beneath Wilde's unsuccessful directing I think there's a great movie to be made in Don't Worry Darling. Florence Pugh seemed to think so too, bringing enough expressive gravitas to offset Harry Styles' sophomoric performance (although it's not as bad as everyone says it is and doesn't tank the film on its own). As it stands, Don't Worry Darling strikes me as a nicely shot bad episode of Black Mirror with ill-conceived politics and poor psychological thriller elements. Not even lovable Florence Pugh can save this sinking ship, 2/5.