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One Small Stepford Man 

Don't Worry Darling can't find a payoff for its mysterious set-up.

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click to enlarge WARNER BROS PICTURES
  • Warner Bros Pictures
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In order to talk about Don't Worry Darling at all, we must agree on the premise that something about the picturesque mid-20th-century community of Victory is ... off. Everything looks perfectly lovely as the men drive off to work every morning in their big American cars with big American fins, and the women stay home to clean, cook and shop, but it's obvious that we're only here because to our circa-2022 eyes, it's clear that this scenario isn't perfectly lovely, at least for the women involved. The only question is, what is the particular way that things here are askew, creepy and/or threatening? How does one talk about that particular way—and how it doesn't particularly work—without the dreaded "spoilers."

Director Olivia Wilde and writers Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke have come up with a concept that, in theory, provides a perfect 21st-century spin on Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives. There's a lot of territory ripe for exploration in reactionary movements built around old-fashioned gender roles. Don't Worry Darling, however, takes on that notion in a way that's almost all ominous set-up without a strong sense of how to pay it off, or how many of its Chekhovian guns it can get away with leaving unfired.

The story centers on Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh), who's enjoying a seemingly blissful existence with her husband Jack (Harry Styles). Jack—apparently along with every other man in town—works for the same mysterious entity, a project called Victory with a visionary leader named Frank (Chris Pine), and which effectively runs the isolated desert town where they all live. There are, however, early signs of weirdness, like periodic tremors that everyone in town just takes for granted. Then another Victory wife begins behaving strangely, and a mysterious encounter leaves Alice with increasingly frightening hallucinations.

The buildup towards the Big Reveal in a story like Don't Worry Darling is always going to count a lot towards its effectiveness, and Wilde does a solid job of staging the scenes that capture Alice's mounting paranoia. Popular culture has already conditioned us to understand that utopian exteriors must be hiding something, and cinematographer Matthew Libatique gives Victory the glossy sheen that contrasts perfectly with the alarming experiences Alice eventually has.

It also depends hugely on Pugh's performance, and once again she proves herself to be one of the most talented young actors in movies. There's certainly a lot of Midsommar's Dani in the character she's playing here—a woman growing increasingly terrified of the isolated place in which she finds herself—but Pugh finds a different note in her complete devotion to Jack. She's such a powerful presence, that it seems almost unfair to set her against the relatively inexperienced Styles, whose Jack never entirely comes into focus in the same way. Pugh is the commanding center of Don't Worry Darling, and the conviction in her meltdown will carry most viewers along towards her ultimate discoveries.

So, about those ultimate discoveries ... this isn't the place to say what they are, and what they aren't. The problem is that the filmmakers don't give themselves enough time to fully explain—and, in a sense, justify—the particular choice they make regarding the nature of Victory. There are entire psychological back-stories—for Jack, for Frank, for Alice's best friend/next door neighbor (played by Wilde)—that either don't emerge at all, or get a hit-and-run moment that short-changes the choices these people have made. Several late plot developments make no sense at all if you stop to think about them for even a moment, depending on the cranked-up pace to distract you. And plenty of the mystery seeds that Don't Worry Darling plants along the way simply disappear without even an attempt at an explanation. It ends up feeling like an attempt to trick viewers into assuming another explanation for what's going on, perhaps related to another movie with a Big Reveal.

Alfred Hitchcock's term of "refrigerator logic" might apply to some of this, and perhaps the journey will be intriguing enough for many viewers that they won't be disappointed by the destination. But allegories like this actually need to have something to say, not just something they want to say. Don't Worry Darling simply can't stick the landing, and all I can do is talk around in circles suggesting that maybe it should have tried to land somewhere else.

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