Director: Olivia Wilde (USA). Year of Release: 2022
Victory. If we’re not in the rich part of California, we may as well be. The sun shines brilliantly and every house has its own swimming pool. Every morning, each man leaves his house at the end of a cul-de-sac and drives to work in a colour coordinated vintage car. His wife waves him off before enthusiastically cleaning the house. Later the wives meet for ballet class then cocktails by the pool. In the evening, they go to a party, often organised by the Victory Project for which the men work.
It was only after reading some reviews that I realised that we’re supposed to assume that this is set in the 1950s. At the very least, some viewers have made this assumption. But the women are so subservient, making such loud statements of joy in their joblessness, that I assumed from the start that we’re in some sort of parody of the mythical Eisenhower years where everybody is happy and nothing unspeakable like domestic abuse or homosexuality is even possible.
The film largely focusses on Alice and her husband Jack, Both are beautiful people, as indeed is everyone in Victory. At first Alice and Jack seem to be not quite as Stepford Wivesy as the others. Jack gives oral sex to Alice, who actually shows pleasure. While this is happening, we hear for the first – and last – time in the film, early rock music rather than bland 1950s doo-wop. You sense that the film is going to go somewhere with the subversive characters of Alice and Jack. It doesn’t.
The Victory Project us led by Frank, a CEO who can spout out management bullshit like the best of them. When Frank invites the employees to a party at his house, one of the newbies says how excited he is at the possibility of chatting with the big boss. The others disabuse him of this notion. Frank’s job is to make speeches which sound like they’re straight out of a PowerPoint presentation and then skulk around the party looking all alpha male.
The men are reluctant to explain what it is that they do at work, other than saying that they create progressive materials, whatever they are. The women are too docile to ask any more. Women are banned from going near the work HQ, or indeed anywhere outside the centre of Victory, which they are told is surrounded by desert. Then one day, Margaret, the only woman who is black, ventures out of town and starts to ask awkward questions.
Margaret’s rebellion starts to spark something in Alice, especially after Alice sees a plane crash in the mountains near to company HQ. She gets off a bus (which is more like the pretend trains you see at the seaside), and runs towards where she saw the plane land, even though this is forbidden. It is not long before she’s standing up at dinner parties, asking why it is that they all seem to have met their husbands in the same way, and accusing Frank of deceiving them all.
For most of the film – three-quarters perhaps – we are moving towards the inevitable twist in the tale. Although any half-sentient being roughly knows what this twist will be, the build up is so slow, so inexorable, that you feel it must be a doozie. Surely only an astoundingly intelligent surprize that fools us all would justify this wait. So, when we do get to the twist, we almost miss it because it is so bloody obvious. Is this all there is? Did we waste all our anticipation on this?
Don’t Worry Darling has received a lot of abuse, only some of which is justified. The problem is not that it discusses sexual violence in a way that all women (#yesallwomen) experience at some times in their lives. The problem is that the film does not address this serious problem with either great interest or much competence. We never break out of the simplistic Cold War clichés of the films which the film is trying to satirise. The impact of any serious points is irreparably blunted,
There’s also been a lot of undue flak aimed at director Olivia Wilde. Wilde has always come across to me as an intelligent actor (even if I was one of the few people who was unconvinced by her debut film Booksmart). The problem of Don’t Worry Darling is not bad direction, so much as the terrible writing. The plot is slow, it doesn’t make sense and we always know what’s going to happen long before it actually does. Even the best director would struggle with this.
The worst of many nonsensical pieces of plot development is the plane crash. I will try to avoid plot spoilers, even though it’s clear from near the beginning of the film what is going to happen. Let’s just say this: the film builds up a certain internal logic which all leads up to the reveal near the end. The possibility of a plane crashing in the desert defies any of this logic (as, indeed, do any number of other scenes in the film). Don’t Worry Darling is not just dumb, it’s not even consistently dumb.
This is a film that is obviously trying to say smart things about important subjects like gaslighting and women’s bodily autonomy. It is just nowhere near as intelligent or as perceptive as it thinks it is. The writers bet the barn on the “surprize ending” which is not a surprize in any of its substance, and really doesn’t tell us much we didn’t know already. It’s such a shame, that the great Florence Pugh, and indeed Olivia Wilde, are caught up in this. They are capable of much better.