Florence Pugh once again finds herself starring in a genre film where an idyllic community uses welcoming perfection as a veneer to hide more insidious secrets. Don’t Worry Darling sees Pugh as a doting ’50s housewife in a picturesque suburban community who quickly finds herself alone in realizing something’s deeply amiss. While the thriller boasts no shortage of visual style and pizzazz, it struggles to build tension or offer narrative surprises.
Don’t Worry Darling opens to a lively dinner party that introduces Alice (Pugh) and her husband Jack (Harry Styles), happy and content among close friends. Alice and Jack are childless by choice, a topic that occasionally surfaces among couples Bunny (director Olivia Wilde) and Bill (Nick Kroll) and the perpetually pregnant Peg (Kate Berlant) with husband Peter (Asif Ali). All live in the isolated town of Victory, part of the mysterious “Victory Project” headed by the elusive Frank (Chris Pine). The women know nothing about their husbands’ jobs within the company, as it’s top secret, but they want for nothing if they abide by a few essential rules. They must not, for any reason, travel beyond the town or attempt to probe for company details. Naturally, Alice notices cracks in Victory’s perfection, creating paranoia and rifts in her idyllic reality.
Wilde, working from a script by Katie Silberman, wastes no time layering in the clues that something sinister is afoot. Aside from the former friend turned social pariah Margaret (KiKi Layne), ousted from the group for paranoid mutterings about Victory’s malintent, Wilde weaves in subliminal imagery, losses in time, and weird hallucinations that leave Alice questioning her reality. Walls close in on themselves; planes appear where they shouldn’t, and more oddities propel Alice into seeking the truth. The problem, of course, is that no one believes her.
The nefarious signs come so fast and steady that it leaves Alice without much room to develop. She begins almost immediately at a high level of emotional duress thanks to newfound paranoid isolation, and Silberman’s script leaves her trapped there for the entirety. There’s no steady ramp-up of intensity; the obvious signs presented upfront prevent tension from taking root and place viewers many steps ahead of Alice. It’s apparent where this is headed long before the obvious answers arrive, making for a long waiting game. When those answers finally come, they’re too superficial to make much of an impact.
Offsetting the narrative’s predictable nature is an engaging performance by Florence Pugh, who manages to maintain rooting interest despite a relatively flat arc. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique also creates a captivating look for Don’t Worry Darling with vibrant color palettes befitting the emulated era that contrast with the monochromatic nightmare visions. The glamorous production design and Wilde’s eye for composition also ensure that while Don’t Worry Darling may not impress narratively, it looks fantastic.
You’ll likely guess Victory’s dark secrets by the trailer alone; it’s that on the nose. While that predictability results in a mostly unsatisfying finale compounded by basic and too literal themes, Wilde at least succeeds in making the journey a sensory feast. Inventive designs and style bolster Pugh’s infectious charms as yet another beleaguered woman trapped in an unsupportive relationship. It’s a dazzling enough affair while it lasts, but it’s mostly forgettable.
Don’t Worry Darling releases in theaters on September 23.