DON’T WORRY DARLING is not as dire as you have been told. It has themes and ideas in common with some films from the seventies that are very popular with creators these days, including Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. It is not a satire, but a thriller that works best as a film that describes what it’s like to be a woman. I don’t want to say that it is a women’s horror film but it describes real-life situations that women find themselves in that one could put into a horror film and have it read as horrific to anyone watching it, especially if the main character was a man. Much like Chloe Okuno’s Watcher, it shows, in sumptuous detail, the horror and dangers of being a woman and the lengths that men and patriarchial society will go to silence you.
There’s a specific type of paranoid thriller from the 60s and 70s that is focused on identity. Films like Seconds show how integral identity is to the core of a human being. A human being denied the freedom to chart their own course and assert their own identity is likely to destroy themselves in one way or another.
DON’T WORRY DARLING focuses on the identity of women and patriarchal society’s attempts to control women’s identities and sexuality as a way to control women themselves. It shows the fear that men and patriarchal society have of women and a potential future where women control the courses of their own lives. Director Olivia Wilde (Booksmart) and the writers, Kate Silberman (Booksmart, Set It Up), Carey Van Dyke, and Shane Van Dyke (The Silence, Chernobyl Diaries) did a good job of outlining exactly how the patriarchy functions and how the dual myths of the ideal nuclear family and a woman’s purpose in life are exploited to keep women under men’s control. It is particularly relevant given the recent overturn of Roe V Wade and conservative attempts to repeal most laws giving women and LGBTQ+ control over their own lives aka basically sending the country back to the 1950s. That’s really what they want, in case you haven’t noticed.
Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) are lucky to be living in the idealized community of Victory, the experimental company town housing the men who work for the top-secret Victory Project and their families. The 1950s societal optimism espoused by their CEO, Frank (Chris Pine) — equal parts corporate visionary and motivational life coach — anchors every aspect of daily life in the tight-knit desert utopia. While the husbands spend every day inside the Victory Project Headquarters, working on the “development of progressive materials,” their wives — including Frank’s elegant partner, Shelley (Gemma Chan) — get to spend their time enjoying the beauty, luxury, and debauchery of their community. Life is perfect, with every resident’s needs met by the company. All they ask in return is discretion and unquestioning commitment to the Victory cause. But when cracks in her idyllic life begin to appear, exposing flashes of something much more sinister lurking beneath the attractive façade, Alice can’t help questioning exactly what they’re doing in Victory, and why. Just how much is Alice willing to lose to expose what’s really going on in this paradise?
The performances are good but have a certain artificiality to them that didn’t work 100% for me, but I suspect are part of the overall design of the film. Everything about the film’s look is splendid, the IMDB page even has a credit for a manicurist. So yes, everything about the look of the women in the film is perfect right down to their nails. Florence Pugh (Midsommar, Black Widow) gives a Florence Pugh performance. As an actress, she is a professional, but her performances have lacked a sincere emotional depth to me. Harry Styles (Dunkirk, Eternals) surprised me because I wasn’t expecting much from him as a singer turned actor, but, even though he’s mostly just called upon to be charming or angry, he does both of those things well. At one point, when his character was screaming at Alice, I had a bit of a flashback, so yes, that anger was pretty real. I don’t know that he’s really capable of subtlety though.
The much-bandied female pleasure scene was really sensual and pretty hot up until a certain point when I feel like Pugh pulled back emotionally. I agree with Wilde that such scenes are necessary and should be included in cinema to give equal time to the idea that women deserve to have pleasure given to them by men. It’s part and parcel with the overall theme of the film, namely, that women are people, not things, and have wants and desires that deserve equal time. The cinema’s tendency to focus almost entirely on male pleasure and dominance in sex has contributed to the patriarchial belief that women don’t need to be pleasured and should only be sexually submissive. It has contributed to the idea of women as sexual objects, to be ogled and screwed aggressively at men’s whims and for men’s exclusive pleasure.
Chris Pine is also good in the role of Frank. Wilde said that the idea of the character was based on Jordan Peterson, the sexist con man of whom Wilde said, “We based that character on this insane man, Jordan Peterson, who is this pseudo-intellectual hero to the incel community.” Chris Pine does an excellent interpretation of Peterson. He always looks like he’s vaguely unwell, smug, and obviously likes to hear himself talk. When pressed, he shows his enormous ego and intellectual pretensions that have no real basis in fact. He mouths puerile rot that doesn’t really mean anything. He obviously has no respect for women but pretends to like them as pretty toys and incubators.
Peterson has gone on the record, on Joe Rogan’s podcast, saying that women’s studies, among others, in colleges are to blame for trigger warnings and cancel culture because they spent 30 years producing “ideologically minded, counter civilization political activists.” He’s basically blaming advances in culture on political activists who are against “civilization” and then asks “why are we subsidizing revolution?” He’s serious about this and his books, lectures, and workshops are clearly his attempt to stop the tide of change by convincing men that they are being wronged and civilization is being destroyed. Peterson thinks that only a return to traditional gender roles and putting a stop to the teaching of women’s studies can save our civilization. I’d say climate change is a bigger threat to our world, but apparently, this guy thinks that giving women an education that contradicts his sexist beliefs is the real danger.
Women of the world, do not have sex with Jordan Peterson or any of his acolytes. I can guarantee that he and his disciples are lousy in bed.
I think it was interesting that Olivia Wilde (Richard Jewell, Ghostbusters: Afterlife) cast herself as the female turncoat. She’s the Joan Crawford of DON’T WORRY DARLING, funny, ironic, and no-nonsense, a mother with seemingly very little emotional attachment to her children. There’s a scene in the film that is reminiscent of the film The Women, as models parade by while the main characters order clothing. Her character, Bunny, and Alice are the best of frenemies, Bunny’s kids seem to prefer Alice’s warmer and more approachable nature and you can see the tiny seeds of resentment in Bunny that make her do what she does.
Gemma Chan is solid as Frank’s wife Shelley, a strong, intelligent, cultured, and beautiful woman who somehow allowed herself to get caught up in Frank’s web. She is stoic and seems to be enduring every moment with a wry pain. But her character, like Alice’s, shows that even the strongest of women can fall for this patriarchal trap. Timothy Simons (Goosebumps, Inherent Vice) is effective as the project’s physician, Dr. Collins. He has an air of easy contempt and arch arrogance that works well to increase tension. KiKi Lane (If Beale Street Could Talk, Native Son) is excellent in the few moments she has on screen in the pivotal role of Margaret, who sets the plot in motion. She is vulnerable in a way that can be read as unbalanced or desperate and her performance works equally as well when people are under the spell of the Victory Project and when the scales fall from their eyes.
What is the Victory Project? That’s a really good question and I can’t go that deeply into it without going into spoiler territory, but if you think about what the patriarchy is, you’re on the right track. The Victory Project has rules and those rules seem to mostly apply to the women, not the men. A personal note: one of the proscriptions of the Victory Project is that women should stay put in their homes and women driving is not allowed. One of the earliest scenes is Alice being given a drunken driving lesson that ends up with Alice doing endless donuts in an open desert field.
Both my grandmother and great-grandmother were never taught to drive. It’s an insidious way to keep control of a woman, but both placidly accepted it. The idea that a woman should not be allowed that knowledge or be taught a skill because she doesn’t need it aka she’s not worthy of having that kind of freedom is appalling. It’s treating grown human beings like they are children. The women of Victory are able to go shopping, because of course – women love shopping! But they have to ride a slow circular tram that takes them to the shopping area and then brings them right back. Their world is nothing but cleaning, cooking, buying dresses to look good for their husbands and the rest of the Victory Project, having sex, and birthing children. Why? Because if you let a woman out of the house, who knows what she might do? Who knows what ideas she might get in her little head?
The one thing I will say about my grandmother is that the very day that I was eligible for a teenage driver’s license, she rolled me out of bed and demanded that I go to the DMV and get a license. She gave me no choice in the matter. Go get it, I was told. Shortly after, she made sure that I got my own car, which I had to pay my aunt for, but once I did, it was mine and I was free to drive wherever I wanted while still in high school. While my willful independence from that day forward surely pained her, she made sure that I knew how to drive. It never occurred to me until I watched DON’T WORRY DARLING and sat down to write this review about what her true motivation might really have been. I finally realized that she wanted me to be free.
DON’T WORRY DARLING starts from the title, a condescending pat on the head for women who are troublesome and who think for themselves. It builds a gorgeous world that is ultimately empty and unfulfilling for the women trapped in the gilded cage. It takes the additional step of showing that it doesn’t necessarily make the oppressors happy either. Even the performances work to this end, with the exception of Kiki Lane as Margaret, all of the other characters are hollow. They are human beings who allowed their souls to be carved out in hopes that a toxic paradise will finally make them happy. The most telling lines of dialogue come from an exchange between Alice and Jack. Jack says, “But you were so unhappy.” and Alice retorts, “But it was my choice.” In this time where people are seeking to take choice away from women and LGBTQ again, it’s a pretty strong statement.
There are moments of great unease in DON’T WORRY DARLING, especially the moment where Alice is suddenly in a room where the walls close in, the scene works as both a symbolic statement and a jump scare. The film’s DP is Matthew Libatique, who has also lensed all of Darren Aronofsky’s films starting with Pi, and does brilliant work in a sun-baked, hyper-detailed film where the camera feeds on the beauty of the carefully art-directed homes, brightly costumed characters, with gorgeous make-up and hair, and beats down, like the sun, on the faces of the characters in merciless detail, seeking to plumb the depths of their dissatisfaction and paranoia.
When I watched the film, I believed that it was filmed in a specific neighborhood in Palm Springs that I have seen in person and I read that it was indeed filmed in the city. The work in production design by Katie Byron (Color Out Of Space, Zola), the art direction by Erika Toth (The One I Love, Booksmart) and Mary Florence Brown, the set decoration by Rachael Ferrara (The Final Girls), the costume design by Arianne Phillips (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, A Single Man) and the make-up department head, Heba Thorisdottir, and hair department head, Jaime Lee McIntosh, was all top notch. You should note that every one of these key crew positions is filled by women. I’ve never spent as much time marveling at the beauty of the hairstyles as I have while watching this film. I don’t think that was an accident. The film shows the enticing thrill of the objectification of female beauty, both for the women and the person observing them. It’s that candy that everybody wants and a honeyed, self-obsessive trap.
DON’T WORRY DARLING is a poisoned fairy tale, and is a story of the reclamation of the self that is thrilling, beautiful, and thematically on the mark. It’s so on the mark, in fact, that it’s liable to make people angry, especially men. Don’t make the mistake of judging the film by what you perceive as the arrogance of the director. Men get away with the same actions that Wilde has taken all the time and arrogance is an accepted quality among male directors. Also, a film isn’t required to hand you the answers to the problems it discusses and it’s not there to break down every aspect of the issues it raises. A film is a communication between the artists and the audience that’s meant to get you thinking about the subject in a different way. For me, DON’T WORRY DARLING is a success in that aim.
DON’T WORRY DARLING will be in US theaters on September 23, 2022.
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