As M. Night Shyamalan illustrated early in his career, there are two main types of “big twist” reveals: the kind that reveal an entire world of possibility and hidden meaning that you didn’t notice the first time around, like Bruce Willis being dead the entire time in The Sixth Sense (spoiler?); and the kind that explain the action coming before and reduce it down to something a little more disappointing, a little more mundane, like finding out the village in The Village wasn’t actually a 19th century settlement menaced by supernatural creatures, but a facsimile of it existing in modern times, with nary a creature to be found. There’s a reason people loved The Sixth Sense and not The Village. One introduced the supernatural, the other killed it.
In Don’t Worry Darling, Olivia Wilde and her screenwriters (Katie Silberman; Carey and Shane Van Dyke*) introduce possibly a third kind of big twist reveal, a kind that exposes a previously engaging story as pure artifice. Watching Don’t Worry Darling (which at least gave us an entertaining press tour, God bless it for that) is like some kind of reverse Pleasantville situation, where after the twist comes, rather than suddenly exposing you to a world of vivid color, it’s like all the town’s buildings are suddenly revealed as movie set facades and the landscapes become painted backdrops. Pinocchio turns back into wood and collapses to the floor, and the movie keeps going for another 30 minutes while Geppetto unconvincingly throws his voice.
Florence Pugh (who may or may not have been feuding with her director on the set) plays Alice Chambers, devoted sorta Stepford wife to Jack (British pop star Harry Styles), who’s so obsessed with his hotwife that when he comes home from work to find a nice roast beef dinner, he throws Alice on the table instead, yanks off her underwear and has himself another sort of nice roast beef dinner (I’m so sorry for this). The two live in a planned community full of bungalow-style houses in what looks like Palm Springs, where all the men work on a mysterious, Cold War-era-esque defense project, and all the women spend their days drinking martinis, going to ballet classes together, and talking about their husbands.
Project Victory, the project and the town are called, which are led by Frank (Chris Pine), who, supported by his mostly mute wife played by Gemma Chan, gives the men vaguely intimidating pump-up speeches and generally doles out patronage like a king at court (or like a tech executive with much better clothes). Other than that it seems like a pretty nice life — impeccably-styled mid-century modern home furnishings, great soul music always on the turntable, rampant generally sanctioned alcoholism — and yet Alice can’t shake the feeling that something is amiss. Like the time she goes to crack some eggs to make her famous deviled eggs** and they’re all revealed to be empty shells. What the f*ck?
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Not once does the movie trouble itself to attach some meaning to those hollow eggs. Wilde only seems capable of illustrating Alice’s growing unease through these types of visual conceits, repeating hallucinatory music video-style montages that convey only the vague sense of psychological trauma and nothing specific.
The Chambers’ Mad Men paradise keeps getting weirder by degrees until finally Alice’s “technical engineer” husband gets a promotion, which he celebrates by doing a full Scatman tapdance routine onstage at the company outing at a moodily lit speakeasy. This is the last straw. We all know engineers can’t tap dance! And they definitely don’t have perfect hair and sympathetic doe eyes like Harry Styles (you can understand how Olivia Wilde fell in love with him — ALLEGEDLY — which, if she could admit it, she could point out male directors have been doing for years).
Alice once again runs off to Camp Victory’s “forbidden zone” where the hallucinations happen (the film really isn’t much more specific than that), and an hour and 15 or so minutes into the movie, Don’t Worry Darling finally lays its cards on the table. Without spoiling anything, the cards essentially say THANKS FOR PLAY CARD GAEM in crayon.
Don’t Worry Darling is sort of like The Matrix, if after The Matrix was revealed, the movie did nothing to explain how The Matrix actually works, or how Neo was supposed to bring it down, and only kept shouting what it was supposed to be a metaphor for at you for a while.
We know the movie is about gaslighting. Which is already a term so overused it threatens to become meaningless. A finale in which the heroine essentially screams “stop gaslighting me!” for 20 minutes is not an interesting way to explore the phenomenon, let alone develop these characters. It feels like the movie skipped from pitch (here is the premise, here are the themes, here’s why it will be timely to tell it) to production before it had a chance to become a story.
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Which is a shame, because the cinematography looks great and the cast (Pugh, Styles, Pine, Nick Kroll, Kate Berlant, Kiki Lane…) are mostly acting their butts off. It’s all very alluring and sexy and intriguing right up until the point when it reveals that it has nothing to say.
**I’m genuinely unsure whether the movie knows that you have to boil eggs to make deviled eggs.
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‘Don’t Worry Darling’ opens September 23rd in theaters nationwide. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.