A Movie That Feels like a Movie
While the white-picket roleplays in Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling intend to critique the trad longings of 2020s American men, the film depicts a notion of womanhood stuck in a cul-de-sac of moral escapism.
Don’t Worry Darling (2022) is a movie. It is a movie that “feels like a movie,” as Harry Styles, one of its lead actors, stated to almost immediate camp effect at a press junket before the film’s Venice premiere last summer. “It feels,” he elaborated, “like a real, like, you know, ‘go to the theater’ film movie.”
Styles is one of the world’s biggest pop stars, having served time in the chaste boy band One Direction before graduating to wooing starlets and dressing in mesh tops and 1970s Gucci silhouettes. Alongside Timothée Chalamet, Styles is a queerbaiting ingénue, seemingly designed to feed the gay-driven Twittersphere and therefore the Twitter-driven media cycle. With his possibly stoned, certainly tautological defense of the cinematic arts, Styles sounded nostalgic for something: maybe an era not too long ago when big-budget Hollywood movies were riskier – bigger and quieter all at once. Erin Brockovich (2000), Glory (1989), Men in Black (1997), The Matrix (1999). A land before Marvel, when blockbusters weren’t so rushed, so under-conceptualized, so globally-conscious and focus-grouped, so wanting for memorable dialogue or iconic visual language that we can leave the multiplex and barely remember what we just saw.
Darling, which is now streaming on HBO Max, may in fact lodge itself in your memory, but not for its visual language, which is only iconic if you think Old Navy ads are iconic. What will stick is the pedantic political messaging – a paper-thin feminist allegory, delivered via Big Twist, in the mold of serial schlock-artist M. Night Shyamalan. (Spoiler alert: if you crave a gluttonous surprise after roughly eighty minutes of scene-setting – then read no further.)
The titular darling is Alice (Florence Pugh), doting wife of Styles’s Jack (who, clean-shaven, looks seventeen years old, straining credulity as a stand-in for old-fashioned American hypermasculinity). Alice spends her days trapped in a sumptuous mid-century modern house on an idyllic 50s cul-de-sac, nestled at the edge of a suspiciously idyllic 50s town in the middle of the desert. The town feels a little fake, even more than the average suburb. Something’s amiss. Alice’s cul-de-sac is populated by a flock of other doting wives whose husbands spend the daylight hours working on a mysterious project in what seems to be a cult. Frank (Chris Pine), the town’s cult leader, spouts Fascism for Dummies mantras (“Chaos is bad, order is good”) over the radio while the wives vacuum in pearls and silk dresses. The town is dubbed “The Victory Project,” the wartime vocabulary a not-so-subtle indication of the violent agenda that surely accompanies any male-generated vision of utopia.
The film bides its time rather repetitively – the wives drink, the husbands disappear during the day – until its big reveal: 50’s-land is virtual reality. Alice and Jack actually live in the 2020’s, where they plug into a bootleg Matrix that makes them believe it’s the 50’s. Jack knows the truth, while Alice has the wool pulled over her eyes. While she experiences her life in a suburban simulation, she is in fact forcibly strapped to a curiously antique gurney, her eyes held open by metal clamps reminiscent of a 20’s insane asylum, then shown trippy music videos of Esther Williams routines which triggers a fugue state sending her back in time.
Jack’s motivations for imprisoning his wife are explained to us in only a few broad strokes: No longer a coiffed dreamboat, 2020’s Jack is now an underemployed, keyboard-bound loser. Alice is a hardworking doctor at a beleaguered hospital, and Jack feels emasculated by her ambition. In case you didn’t realize they’re worse off in real life, their current day apartment is rendered in clichéd dark greens as if to suggest economic malaise. Then one day, falling down a YouTube rabbit hole, Jack discovered Chris Pine’s character (now a Right Wing huckster – think a hotter Alex Jones, or perhaps Andrew Tate) who is hawking the Victory Project as the solution to a masculinity under siege. Sign up and his minions will come to your apartment, strap your wife down and begin the reeducation process with the metal clamps. If this simulated dystopia sounds familiar, it’s because the antecedents are many: The Matrix, The Village (2004), Westworld (1973), The Truman Show (1998).
Like The Handmaid’s Tale (2017), Don’t Worry Darling allows viewers to get off on a cinematic enactment of their own imagined, operatic oppression, not unlike the perverse enjoyment a true-crime addict gets out of imagining a killer coming through their door. It is telling that director Olivia Wilde spends so much time repetitively drawing the confines of this fascism and so little on what motivates it. The film is written by Katie Silberman (who also wrote Wilde’s debut, the high school dramedy Booksmart (2019) from a story by Carey and Shane van Dyke, grandsons of Dick (they should know something about 1950s utopia). Yet neither Wilde nor the script can articulate, in any but the broadest, crudest terms, the passions and mechanisms that lurk behind the façade.
The patriarchy is bad. We know that. Yet there is a joy in playing house, in drinking martinis, in wearing dresses. Perhaps even in subjugation!
A frontline health care shero in the 2020s, Alice is morally unimpeachable. Not yet successful enough to be a target of class ire, her ambition is rendered good for society. Jack is a lazy incel. (The makeup department strains to make Styles – who has all of three mustache hairs and looks like a teenage Glossier employee – seem grizzled and unhealthy.) Our sole indication of a crisis in their rapport is when Jack angrily asks Alice why she didn’t respond to a text about what to Grubhub that night. “I was working! I didn’t have my phone,” she replies, exasperated yet patient, above reproach. The dichotomy hits you over the head: She’s pious and understanding (because she works at a hospital); he’s alienated and sad (because he sits on YouTube and his hair is greasy).
The film trafficks in a slick visual language typically employed by commercials to prod a sad, aspiring middle class. Lots of richly saturated, symmetrical overhead shots: cars doing donuts in the desert, cars leaving a cul-de-sac in choreographed ballet, drinks being poured in choreographed ballet. In one particularly hollow bit of filmcraft, the camera swirls showily around three husbands in conversation, Aaron Sorkin–style. Except it’s not one continuous take: the shot cuts each time we move behind someone’s head. The whole point of that camera trick is to feel like you’re being thrown into the middle of a hive of activity. Here the shoddy execution suggests only that Wilde thinks going in circles is cool.
Darling’s best moments are in fact its most unabashedly commercial ones – the carefully curated domestic fantasy sequences. Wilde has undoubtedly watched enough Architectural Digest videos of her Hollywood peers’ midcentury houses to recreate the perfect sunken living room. The vision of the cul-de-sac crew joyously balancing bourbon glasses on their heads is corny but warmly felt in the same way a Target ad is – luxury made accessible, eccentricity stripped of its threatening urbaneness – because you already know the product is cheap and ersatz. Another film might pass this off as satire. By merely mimicking advertising’s middle-class optimism, it all feels closer to a tepid endorsement of the very patriarchal striver aesthetics Wilde wishes to critique.
The patriarchy is bad. We know that. Yet there is a joy in playing house, in drinking martinis, in wearing dresses. Perhaps even in subjugation! There is a tension between comfort and freedom here that Darling would really like to surface. But the jumbled timeline, with its reductive politics (50’s bad but fun! 2020’s downtrodden but equal!) makes the allegory more confusing than illuminating. Why, for example, does the Esther Williams video trigger the fugue state sending Alice to the 50’s? And why does her 50’s self, and all the other wives, so wholly embrace this ambitionless, Stepford Wife existence from merely watching a video? Is Wilde implying women have some innate desire to be June Cleaver, and the video is simply triggering some trad microchip? That would be very anti-feminist.
However dystopian Darling’s dreamland is, it’s enamored not only with the aesthetic glamor of the 50’s, but the simplicity of its own moral argument.
There are several gratuitous scenes of Jack walking in the door and taking Alice right on the floor or the dining room table – her legs flying up in abandon, the perfectly prepared steak Béarnaise shoved right onto the shag carpet. Except he’s not really taking her, he’s eating her out, and she looks like she could crush his little teen head between her thighs. The image of Alice in sexual control, her pleasure foregrounded, feels trafficked in from 2020, at odds with the danger this film would like patriarchy to imply. In interviews, Wilde has bragged that “men don’t come in this film,” apparently a feminist triumph, despite that waiting around all day for your husband to ravage you is about as trad as it gets.
If we’re being generous, the historical mashup is an indictment of patriarchy’s own jumbled fantasies of the past. If we’re not, the wonky pastiche reveals Darling’s feminism is itself ahistorical – a generic ideal removed from any specific setting, current or past. It recalls the already dated feminism of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, itself a retread of 80’s second-wave feminism, then once again transplanted onto Wilde’s faux-50’s past. It’s also a bit too pat how the film’s sole Black character is coincidentally its most heroically prescient – the cul-de-sac wife who first realizes something is rotten in the state of Victory. And yet none of the other women are racist in the film’s fantasy 50s – or its 2022, for that matter – because that might undermine the perfection of their victimhood.
Fight Club (1999), Office Space (1999), the Matrix too, were about men tortured by the rat race, each a sallow white nobody realizing his life was a joke. Those films suggested that the solution to young male alienation was a brave new version of masculinity – anti-corporate, physical yet sensitive. Darling suggests, rather grimly, that the solution is simply a better position in the rat race. In the 2020s dystopia, Jack’s unhappy because he’s unemployed; men can’t handle failure if a woman is succeeding nearby. In 50’s land, Jack giddily trods off to work each day, and is therefore the consummate husband and lover who puts her pleasure first. “But I wanted to work!” Alice screams at him when she finally learns of his betrayal. His character’s biggest flaw is robbing us of seeing her ennobled by a stressful career.
But girlboss feminism today isn’t what it used to be. From the fall of The Wing to today’s tradcath resurgence, a more class-conscious left has grown suspicious of Lean In careerism, and transmasc and nonbinary queers who reject the label “woman” altogether – “girl power” is not the de facto rallying cry it once was. It’s harder now to embrace the void of a feminism that hawks Ruth Bader Ginsburg beer koozies, or exalts the woman who arrives in the corner office, then promptly labels her insecurity “imposter syndrome” and elevates the feeling to an epidemic, espousing its horrors at various panels and conferences. However dystopian Darling’s dreamland is, it’s enamored not only with the aesthetic glamor of the 50’s, but the simplicity of its own moral argument. It’s a nostalgia for a time when women were less complicated subjects of the patriarchy, without the wrinkles of class, race, evolving gender categories, or the contradictions of self-branding.
So, is Harry right?
Darling does feel like a ‘go to the theater’ movie, and that may be enough. What we – the drooling, screen-pilled populace – get from culture these days tends to be simulacra: Mark Zuckerberg’s multibillion-dollar effort to create a preposterously ugly metaverse or Spotify’s ubiquitous mood-based playlists, like “Beats to Study To” or “60s Dinner Party,” algorithmic taste-making, filled with imitation music by astroturfed bands paid a fee by Spotify in order to avoid paying residuals to real people. Laminate flooring, vape cartridges, “vegan leather.” The tactility of objects doesn’t matter on Zoom, nor does the movieness of a movie if you’re barely paying attention. And in that sense, Darling flies a few notches above blockbusters like Cruella (2021), the post-Lucas Star Wars (1977–2019) films, or the most recent James Bond (2021), with their rapid cuts, short scenes, and tiring closeups; an exhaustive pacing that can make an already bloated 165 minutes feel even longer. To her credit, Wilde lets her scenes push past the thirty-second mark, creating a sense of space that does indeed make Darling feel movie-esque.
But for all its movieness, it doesn’t feel real. The 1950s portrayed in Darling isn’t just fake to the characters, it’s fake for us; with its self-consciously balletic cinematography and clumsy feminism, it’s the 50’s as seen from the 2010’s. The reference isn’t the actual 50s, but Mad Men (2007–15), which pushes Darling a little too far through the looking glass. This isn’t a period piece infused with contemporary desire, it’s a contemporary pastiche with a dated political thesis. We’re not left wanting what the characters want, or even wanting more from the film. All we want to do is stay on the couch, searching for something that feels like a movie. Or a movie that feels like something.
STEVEN PHILLIPS-HORST is a performer and writer. He lives in New York.