Spoilers ahead. Don’t Worry Darling is the latest in a long continuation of movies that discuss female catharsis and misogyny but fails to acknowledge racism and quickly falls apart when attempting to critique patriarchy.
Olivia Wilde’s sophomore film has had a rocky history from production to its eventual release last week on the 23rd September. Early on, the film suffered from production halts due to Covid and a change-up in the leading man (Harry Styles replaced Shia Labeouf). Alongside this, a relationship between Wilde and Styles led to increased tabloid attention and during the press run, its lead actor Florence Pugh was noticeably absent. Don’t Worry Darling seems to be attracting all the wrong attention but I had hoped that underneath the drama there was a decent enough film to make it all worthwhile. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, instead, what we’ve been given is tantamount to a lazy rip-off of The Stepford Wives or a ‘white woman’s Get Out’ as many online have coined the film.
Don’t Worry Darling centres on Alice (Pugh) and her slow realisation that her life in an idyllic 1950s suburbia is not all it seems. From the very beginning, it is clear what Don’t Worry Darling is attempting to do. Everything in the confines of the town she and her husband Jack (Styles) reside in is similar and manufactured. Their day-to-day routine is the same, Jack goes to work and leaves Alice home, where she cleans the house, goes shopping, and prepares dinner for her husband to return. Alice is unaware of what Jack does for work as all the husbands of the town are forbidden to disclose that information, but it is known that they work for Frank (Chris Pine) and that the wives cannot venture to the headquarters where the men work, which resides outside of the town limits.
The women are trapped, and the film does not shy away from showing the audience that the ideal life of a housewife is not all it seems to be and very quickly leads to two of the women breaking out of their enforced roles as they begin to realise what has happened. One of the women that learn this early on is Margaret (Kiki Layne), and whilst she isn’t the only Black woman seen on screen, she is the only one with any dialogue or plot points. Margaret is quickly banished from her friendship group and eventually commits suicide due to the gaslighting she’s enduring by everyone around her, there is no other alternative she can see as a way out of Victory outside of death. This sequence of events leads Alice to question what is actually going on. Throughout the film, she sees snippets of her buried memories and when she’s forced to endure electroshock therapy she regains her memory in its entirety.
During multiple flashbacks to the real world, we see that Alice is a doctor, and her recently unemployed husband has a strained relationship with her due to how much she works. At one point in the flashback, Alice comes home, and Jack is sitting at his monitor with several forums on the screen as well as a discord server. It’s clear that Jack has fallen into an alt-right rabbit hole and this is the motive for why he makes a choice to capture Alice instead of letting her outgrow him.
I wouldn’t be jumping to conclusions by saying that Frank reminds me of the author, clinical psychologist and incel adored philosopher Jordan Peterson. Wilde herself has attributed him as an inspiration behind the character. In an interview with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Wilde stated, “We based that character on this insane man, Jordan Peterson, who is this pseudo-intellectual hero to the incel community.” Wilde also described incels as “disenfranchised, mostly white men, who believe they are entitled to sex from women.” But I fear that Wilde seems to have a very shallow understanding of not only Peterson but the manosphere in general. Victory is a simulation created by Frank to keep women locked away in captivity, and the severity of that idea is never fully explored. Frank’s continuous chanting about regaining control of your life and wanting men to return to a time when everything seemed ‘right’ is clearly tied to white supremacy and its relation to protecting white feminity. The incels Wilde is attempting to discredit are not just hurt men who need wives or women to have sex with; they are raging racists and bigots. Men in these circles want to encapture white women for their own ‘protection’ so that they aren’t corrupted by the modern world, which is just a way of saying they do not want these women to have rights or make choices they disagree with in terms of who they marry, have kids with, vote for and so on. The themes of Don’t Worry Darling fail by refusing to acknowledge that element. Having Margaret die off to kickstart Alice’s journey feels disgusting in hindsight, especially when you realise Layne has been snubbed from most of the film’s press run, cut from a lot of the film itself and barely even mentioned amongst the drama circling the movie. The film cuts back and forth from shots of her dead body in some poor sense of building up suspense and grief, but it just feels like it’s taunting its viewers with how little it respects its singular Black character who is pivotal to the story yet had little to no screentime.
Margaret is not the only non-white character this happened to. Shelly (Gemma Chan), the wife of Frank, is made out to be a supportive and doting wife to him. We know nothing about her outside the fact she’s married to a powerful man and that the other women fear her. Towards the end of the film, when Alice is making her getaway and everything comes crumbling down, Shelly stabs her husband. There’s no buildup or foreshadowing to her being aware she was also a captive instead, that’s given to Bunny (Wilde) who states she chose this life to be with her children which is another plot point quickly rushed over. When Shelly stabs Frank, the film paints this as a triumphant moment but it feels incredibly unearned, and fleeting as we move back towards Alice and her escape.
In a lot of ways Don’t Worry Darling reminds me of the exhausting ‘good for her’ category that films in a post #MeToo era Hollywood have found themselves in. This could either be due to an audience misconstruing what a film is saying (Gone Girl and Midsommar), or that the film itself seems to misunderstand its own point of view (Promising Young Woman and Fresh). The ‘good for her’ category is usually white and focuses on a very liberal form of feminism that does not acknowledge race or if it does, the characters of colour are underutilised and quickly killed off.
Don’t Worry Darling wants its cake and to eat it as well. It wants to be a social commentary but can’t commit to delving deeper into its subject matter. It wants to be a film about female pleasure but retroactively makes any of the shown sex scenes into assault due to the lack of consent given by Alice. And finally, it wants to be a psychological sci-fi thriller, but feels so intensely dull that you’d be better off watching a Black Mirror episode.
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