“Don’t Worry Darling” has generated weeks of headlines leading up to its debut in theaters this week, headlines that have virtually nothing to do with the product on the screen. If you haven’t already, you can dig into the project’s various controversies elsewhere.
As for the high-concept psychological drama itself, it’s a very strong second feature-directing effort from Olivia Wilde, even if its revelation-dependent ending doesn’t quite succeed to the level needed for “Don’t Worry Darling” to deliver on all its potential.
Regardless of how you feel about Wilde based on your assessment of the aforementioned controversies, the actor-director is an obvious talent behind the camera. Her feature debut, 2019 coming-of-age comedy “Booksmart,” is a laugh-filled delight with plenty of heart.
“Don’t Worry Darling,” on the other hand, is an engaging and unsettling keep-you-guessing drama — at least until its rushed climax.
It also benefits from a strong performance by Florence Push, who leads an ensemble cast that also boasts Harry Styles, Chris Pine and Wilde herself.
Pugh inhabits Alice Chambers, one of a handful of housewives living on a cul de sack in an idyllic 1950s-era community in the desert called Victory. Before Alice, best friend Bunny (Wilde) and the other women take care of the housework and enjoy each other’s company, their husbands drive off in the morning for jobs at the headquarters of the Victory Project, where they work on the “development of progressive materials.”
When we meet Alice, she is incredibly happy. Upon his return from his work as a technical engineer, she greets husband Jack (Styles) at the door with a drink. And even though the table is set for a dinner she has been preparing, it immediately becomes needed for an activity other than dining. Those plates and utensils be damned!
However, another Victory wife, Margaret (KiKi Layne, “The Old Guard”), has been acting strangely — “I can’t sleep; I have nightmares,” she says — and soon Alice begins to question the nature of her own reality.
She becomes especially suspicious of Frank, the charismatic but also enigmatic Victory Project CEO, Victory mayor and lead voice of the community. That voice even is pumped into the homes of these couples, Alice listening to his words as she scrubs and tidies.
Frank preaches order over chaos and the beauty in symmetry, with the men especially buying into every word. In fact, Bunny’s husband, Dean (Nick Kroll, “How It Ends”), gets noticeably frustrated if anyone questions Frank’s cult-leader-like preachings.
There is but one rule for the women of Victory: stay in town, where it’s safe. However, after seeing something that disturbs her, Alice heads into the desert — a decision that will have lasting implications.
While we heap praise on Wilde for how easily “Don’t Worry Darling” seduces you into its odd-but-beguiling world, know that she benefits from significant help in making you want to remain there for two hours.
As she has been in movies such as “Little Women” and “Black Widow,” Pugh is pretty captivating. We certainly feel what Alice feels — especially late in the affair, when she comes to understand more about what her life entails.
Styles (“Dunkirk”), the One Direction singer whose casting is among the movie’s much-discussed aspects, is, at the very least, fine. Would Shia LaBeouf — who either quit the film or was fired by Wilde, depending on which account you choose to believe — have been better? Perhaps in some key moments, but the movie depends almost entirely on Pugh’s work.
That said, Pine (“All the Old Knives”) is an excellent choice for the crucial supporting role of Frank. If anything, “Don’t Worry Darling” would have benefited from more screen time for the “Star Trek” star.
Behind-the-scenes talents including director of photography Matthew Libatique (“A Star Is Born,” “Black Swan”), production designer Katie Byron, (“Booksmart”), editor Affonso Gonçalves (“The Lost Daughter”) and music supervisor Randall Poster (“No Time to Die”) contribute significantly to the experience, as well. All its technical aspects work in harmony.
Wilde directs from a screenplay by another “Booksmart” collaborator, Katie Silberman, who shares story credits with the “Chernobyl Diaries” duo of Carey and Shane Van Dyke, brothers and grandsons of Dick Van Dyke. Collectively, they have done a lot of nice things here but, again, don’t quite stick the landing. Once you know the state of play, you have to accept a few too many far-fetched concepts — especially during the final act.
To be fair, though, a second viewing of “Don’t Worry Darling” may suggest all the pieces fit together more tightly than it initially seems.
Even if they don’t, Wilde has cemented herself as a filmmaker to watch. Whatever she does next, however, you’d hope the release goes more smoothly.
‘Don’t Worry Darling’
When: Sept. 23.
Rated: R for sexuality, violent content and language.
Runtime: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
Stars (of four): 3.