Movie Curiosities: Don’t Worry Darling

At this moment, I have neither the time nor the inclination to go into detail about the ongoing dumpster fire that is Warner Bros. Discovery. By now, it’s a matter of common knowledge that the once-prestigious media conglomerate is getting dragged back to the ’90s because CEO David Zaslav has proven himself incapable of running anything more advanced than a basic cable channel. After a number of catastrophic artistic choices and self-destructive tax maneuvers, it’s now perfectly obvious that the C-suite at WBD is only focused on 1) turning CNN into the center-right news channel that Fox News still purports itself to be, and 2) driving down the company’s value and its $50+ billion deficit to the point where some other conglomerate (reportedly Comcast) is willing to buy it.

Yet even for how utterly boneheaded and outright malicious WBD management has repeatedly shown itself to be, I must give them credit for fluking their way into solving one of the most pernicious and widespread conundrums facing Hollywood studios for the past couple of decades.

In the age of social media and ubiquitous internet access, Hollywood has developed an all-consuming obsession with secrecy. The studios have all gone to tremendous lengths in making sure nobody can spoil a film, or even make a well-educated guess about spoilers. The unfortunate downside is that the studios are extremely limited in promoting their franchise pictures.

Case in point: We’re three months out from Avatar: The Way of Water and nobody knows the first damned thing about that movie’s plot. To list another recent example, Spider-Man: No Way Home infamously didn’t get a teaser trailer or even much of any promotion until August 23rd of 2021 — four months before the film’s debut. Hell, we didn’t even get a release date for goddamn The Munsters (2022), nor did we know how or where it would be released, until July 18th of 2022. That movie hit Netflix today. TWO MONTHS LATER.

The studios need to promote their movies and get the audience turnout, but they have to find some way of doing it without tipping their hand as to what the movies might actually be about. WBD’s ingenious solution: Focus on tabloid gossip bullshit.

Don’t Worry Darling is a psychological suspense thriller from Olivia Wilde in her sophomore directing effort, bringing back Booksmart scribe Katie Silberman to punch up a script by Carey and Shane Van Dyke of Chernobyl Diaries. Obviously, we can’t know anything about the premise of this suspense thriller — the whole point of a suspense thriller is in discovering the clues on our way to the big reveal, we can’t have anything to compromise that. So instead, let’s talk about how Wilde and Florence Pugh constantly fought on the set, and how Shia LaBeouf got fired from the movie to be replaced by Harry Styles, whom Wilde is now dating after she got served divorce papers in the middle of an industry presentation and did you hear that Styles spit on Chris Pine?!

It’s all flash-in-the-pan horseshit that’s got nothing to do with the film itself, and nobody will remember or care about any of this in another year, or even another month. But in the short-term, right now, we’re talking about the star players of this particular film that’s set to come out. The upshot is that everybody’s talking about the movie… without actually talking about the movie. It’s a stroke of diabolical genius, and it’s going to drive this whole godless world even further into collective insanity if this is allowed to become the norm.

Not that it made much difference, as the film came out to a critical savaging. Left, right, and center, critics and moviegoers alike were swift to lambast the film as shallow and derivative, with worn-out themes and a pitiful performance from Harry Styles. To say nothing of how utterly wretched that big third-act reveal ultimately turned out to be.

…Am I really going to be the one who stands up for this picture? Seriously, folks, I might end up regretting this, but I honestly didn’t think the movie was all that bad on first watch.

We lay our scene in the middle of some desert, where the idyllic town of Victory has been built in sickening and overblown imitation of heteronormative post-war mid-20th century suburban Americana. Though at least there are a few people of color in the neighborhood, so there’s that. I might add that Victory is the passion project of Frank (Chris Pine), who employs the men of the town in some vague research project. The exact details are classified, but given how there’s no communication of any kind going in or out of the town, it’s not really clear why the Victory Project is so heavily classified or who anyone could possibly tell.

Florence Pugh plays Alice Chambers, happily married to Jack Chambers (Harry Styles). Every day, Jack and all the other men of the community drive out to the forbidden Victory Headquarters while Alice and all the other housewives clean up, cook dinner, go shopping, meet for ballet classes, and so on. Among Alice’s neighbors are Peg (Kate Berlandt), who’s introduced drinking while pregnant for some indeterminate length of time — indeed, Peg has been pregnant for such an improbably long time that everyone’s made a recurring joke out of how she’s never giving birth. Also of interest is Bunny (Olivia Wilde herself), the resident skeptic so pathologically dependent on the system that she genuinely doesn’t want to know if anything might be amiss.

But then there’s Margaret (KiKi Layne), our canary in the coal mine. After losing a child under bizarre circumstances, Margaret’s behavior grows increasingly erratic, with cryptic and half-crazed warnings about something sinister going on in Victory. Shortly afterward, Alice herself starts seeing things and imagining things, driving her to ask questions that nobody else seems interested in hearing, much less exploring.

First of all, yes, this is unmistakably a scenario in which everybody tries to gaslight a female character and write her off as hysterical and so on and so forth. This in the context of a movie with a clear heteronormative dynamic in which the husband is the breadwinner, the wife is the homemaker, the man is the king of his household, and the woman is supposed to be ready with a steak and a BJ when he comes home.

That said, during the numerous Jack/Alice sex scenes in this picture, it’s always Jack pleasuring Alice and never the other way around. It’s always quite notable for a mainstream picture to focus so much on cunnilingus, but let’s be real — the bottom line is that Florence Pugh and Harry Styles have sex scenes. Regardless of positions and degrees of nudity, there’s your headline to drive the aforementioned clickbait gossip bullshit this movie so badly needed for its own promotion. I digress.

At its heart and core, this really is a movie about community. On the one hand, we need some level of trust to function as a society. We trust our children to teachers and daycare centers and babysitters. We trust our news anchors to deliver reliable facts on current events. Hell, there were probably hundreds of people involved with growing, inspecting, packaging, transporting, cooking, and serving each individual ingredient in the meal on your plate. And without even giving it a thought, you’re trusting every single one of those hundreds to deliver you a food-safe product every time you eat. And yet you can’t eat without trusting them, so if you don’t trust them, you die.

But on the other hand, that level of trust can lead those in a community to believe malicious absurdities or make outrageous sacrifices. What’s more, our need to be a part of something bigger, our own social nature and inherent need for company, can lead us to abandon all sense of self. It’s frighteningly easy to hate or hurt or kill “outsiders”, to ignore blatantly obvious truths, to let misdeeds go unobserved and unpunished for the good of the tribe. Because what else can one do when the Tribe is the entirety of one’s own identity?

Alice’s paranoid delusional ramblings are the direct result of things she’s clearly seen and heard firsthand. But when her visions are so bewildering, and when her alcohol consumption skyrockets as the film unfolds, we the audience are led to wonder if Alice is completely reliable as a narrator. More to the point, Alice alienates herself by acting in ways that are counter to the good of Victory and the word of Frank. Thus Alice is branded as a mental case and possibly a self-centered liar because conventional wisdom and popular opinion — not to mention the highest and most trusted authority in the land — says that what she’s saying can’t possibly be true.

But even if Alice’s suspicions are correct and her wild half-baked conspiracy theories are onto something, is it really worth rocking the boat? So long as people are happy and safe, why not stick with the tried-and-true status quo? Hell, what if some people actively and knowingly fled to Victory as an escape from something even worse — would you want to send them back to that, even if it meant exposing some terrible lie?

I’ve heard it said that the big third-act reveal turns all of these themes on their head and throws the whole movie out the window. I’m not seeing it. Honestly, the reveal is pretty straightforward as an act of patriarchal evil that subjugates women. Yet it’s presented with just enough nuance that certain characters — both male and female! — are given sympathetic and understandable reasons for going along with it, without ever losing the clear meta statement of condemnation. The balance is quite masterfully handled, really.

To be clear, the third act has some pretty serious problems. The underlying concept of the big reveal is sadly uninspired. Freaking Booksmart had a more thrilling car chase than this climax. Victory has some fatal design flaws as glaringly obvious as they are asinine. Frank’s ending makes no lick of sense.

And what of Harry Styles? Well, the guy is unquestionably a pop star first and foremost. What he lacks in acting talent, he makes up in charisma. And charisma is nowhere near enough — certainly not in a production of this caliber — but at least he has it. More to the point, if the task was to portray Jack as a charming, shallow, and pretty fool without any backbone or independent thought, then Styles did the job. A more seasoned actor might’ve crafted a deeper character with this same material, but Styles was enough to get the job done.

And anyway, can you honestly tell me that the movie would’ve been better if freaking Shia LaBeouf had played this part instead? Because I’m not seeing it.

It certainly helps that the rest of the cast is all aces. Florence Pugh has already gone much deeper into this particular bag with Midsommar, of course she knocks it out of the park. Olivia Wilde proves remarkably adept at directing herself, Nick Kroll makes a small but welcome appearance in a supporting role, KiKi Layne is utterly magnetic within her brief screentime, and Timothy Simons is nicely unnerving as the local doctor. Kudos are also due to Gemma Chan, once again stealing the show in the role of Frank’s wife.

Which brings me to the MVP of the supporting cast: Chris Pine. With this performance, Pine perfectly and boldly embodies all the good and bad traits you’d associate with a wildly successful cult leader. He’s charming, but with an edge. He’s intelligent enough and tactful enough that he could talk anyone into believing anything. Such a force of personality that he could will anyone into believing that yes, he is good enough and smart enough to back up his astronomical arrogance. Masterfully done.

There’s no denying that Don’t Worry Darling is made of parts and themes rehashed from so many other movies, but if the film doesn’t do anything new, at least it does it all right. The cast is solid, the themes are expressed with intelligence and nuance, and the clues and reveals are nicely paced. Of course, it certainly helps that the editing, the sound design, and the phantasmagoric visuals are all expertly crafted to bring us a finely-honed sense of unease.

Maybe I’m missing something here, but I honestly don’t think this is such a bad movie. Give it a watch and leave me a comment, I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.

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