[Warning: I’m really not sure if this review is one big spoiler. Any movie with a central reveal risks its own spoilation, especially when the secret will be divined during the screening by some, maybe even by many. I do want to protect this surprise as ardently as the men try to protect their women in this movie. But if you’re intent on keeping your head bomb-sheltered in the Mojave sand before seeing this picture, then stop reading now.]
Fresh off claiming first place at the box office last weekend, Don’t Worry Darling is best viewed not as a glamorous Atomic Age thriller, but as a dark comedy played out in bright desert sunshine.
A different sort of light, though one no less bright, has shone down on the production. The ill-will supposedly now blowing between the movie’s director Oliva Wilde and its brightest star Florence Pugh—brightest, that is, when it comes to the not-always-most-important matter of acting chops. (Playing her glamorous, pleasure-seeking and -giving, husband is Harry Styles, the pop supernova whose acting chops are decidedly underbaked, but whose global appeal maybe, just maybe is driving ticket sales even more than the concocted controversies swirling around the movie.)
Also widely reported has been Pugh’s physical absence and continuing radio silence during the movie’s publicity rounds, a silence all the louder since she’s a talented Tweeter. The departure of Shia LaBeouf—he quit or was sacked depending on who is putting the spin on events—in favor of the world’s top pop crooner laid the makings for a ticket-boosting fire. Onto this gossip tinder was squirted the kerosene of an alleged affair between the singer and the director that began during filming. The match was struck and tossed on the pile when Wilde, who also appears in the movie, herself went silent about the off-camera drama(s): “As for all the endless tabloid gossip and all the noise out there, I mean, the internet feeds itself … I don’t feel the need to contribute. It’s sufficiently well nourished.”
These artfully mismanaged contretemps have doubtless helped the bottom line. I saw the movie this past Tuesday at a suburban multiplex just south of the Canadian border in Washington State. The region was bathed in smoke from a nearby forest fire and the real twilight outside the theaters glowed a Californian hue so shamelessly vintage that it could have been mistaken for the Apocalypse or a scene from the movie I was about to see. Who cares? I’ve given up worrying, darling, and two-hours in the crisp air of this cinematic desert was just what Dr. Atomic ordered.
The cinema was packed with young women, there to ogle Styles and titter at him too. Their mocking, but also affectionate giggles mingled with the thrumming soundtrack when he pawed at Pugh after a long day at the office.
Styles’s generically named character is Jack Chambers, engineer at the mysterious Victory Project. This super-secret outfit is headquartered in the mountains some distance across the sunbaked flats from the moderne settlement where their trophy wives and a sparse contingent of chubby children remain sequestered. Their days of housewifely sublimation are occupied with scrubbing bathrooms and preparing sumptuous mid-century meals of roasts, steaks, and tuna salad. When not engaged in their valium-hazed chores, the women gather poolside for mid-morning or mid-afternoon cocktails, day-drinking giving effortlessly onto night-drinking.
At the Regal Cinema on Barkley Village Green (an idyll as unlikely as that of the Victory Project) in Bellingham, Washington there was gleeful laughter when Styles threw Pugh’s Alice onto their fully laden dinner table and ate her instead of the roast, the dutiful and apparently delighted wife pushing aside her culinary labors to smash on the tiled floor.
The pair is too busy having sex and slugging down Manhattans to have kids. The giggles got even louder when a tuxedoed Styles 1950s loomed lovingly over Pugh lying in that very green and very clean bathtub to tell her that he wanted to have kids after all. To calm her furtive doubts about the whole set-up, he’s now eager “to make another one of you.” Ha, ha, ha!
You know you’re in tongue-in-cheek Eye-Candyland when the male characters pull out from their adjacent driveways in synchronized formation, each in distinct automotive icons (Thunderbird, Chevy Belair, etc.) fastidiously calibrated to range across the Eisenhower color palette. In this turbocharged 1950s genderscape men make the money and use it to make their women happy—until they’re not.
The heteronormativity isn’t so much oppressive as hilarious, all the more thanks to the canny casting-against-type of the famously fluid Styles. Early on he even kisses fellow Victory Project employee Dean (Nick Kroll) at a bourbon-soaked party—an exception-proving-the-rule exclamation point on the binary role-playing that otherwise prevails. Just for kicks, Kroll and Styles kissed against during a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month.
These design fetishes have a comic charge, and one can’t help but laugh along with the rest of the audience at Harry’s lust for leather seats and sex before dinner. Plus, there’s the deeper irony that these male desires—perfect jobs, perfect cars, perfect cocktails, perfect wives who are perfectly pleased by their husbands’ perfect prowess—are curated by women: Wilde directing a script by Katie Silberman set against the still more crucial production design of Katie Byron. That’s a fun joke, too: in a Hollywood dominated across more than a century by men, it is present an exhibition of cinematic male desire. The punchline is that Wilde has been hounded for having fooled around with her star, standard operating procedure of so many of her male predecessors in the director’s chair.
But there are also men among the moviemakers and they are just as crucial. Indeed, cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s camera is the truest, cruelest and funniest conduit of the male gaze, not just when it is eyeing bikini bottoms or manicured female hands massaging big over-oiled steaks or the polished chrome exhaust pipe of a Thunderbird. The clubs and closets Libatique surveils are as fantastical as they are foolish.
The 1950s and 60s Rock and Roll spun on these beautiful people’s turntables and saturating the debauched proceedings with sonic perfume are sung not by women but by (Black) men: The Platters, The Chords, Little Anthony & The Imperials. What they sing of is desperate masculine desire: Little Willie John’s pleading “Need Your Love So Bad”; Ray Charles’s throaty and urgent “(Night Time) Is the Right Time.”
The women are medicated and easily seduced by these sonic prescriptions and that’s funny too: just how effective these male come-ons are in the wondrous world of the film, and how creepy Rock and Roll is made to seem as a result. Was the audience seduced as well? All that laughter would suggest otherwise.
The Rock and Roll and bits of jazz (Mel Tormé, Benny Goodman) keep these women in the thrall of their men. The wives are happy, but doubts creep in. Casting these sonic shadows across the stucco and sand is the composer John Powell, the other vital male who plies his craft off camera. Powell delivers ominousness in quantity: long held chords that morph from one vaguely sinister harmony to another; furtive drums beating on edge of the unconscious; indistinct instruments (brass and strings or synthesized—i.e., falsified versions—of them) that could be mistaken for voices and that pulse like a heartbeat with a worrying murmur; liminal effects that sound like wind or the flailing rotors of a helicopter about to crash; and, de rigueur, lashing pizzicato strings right out of Psycho. All this suggests cul-de-sac claustrophobia and female angst eventually giving way to outright fear. But these musical cues coupled with Libatique’s images also taunt retrospectively the hallowed work of Hollywood’s celebrated male directors and their composers: the thriller and its music rendered as burlesque perversion. There were giggles at all this ghoulishness too, especially when Harry and his pompadour heaved into view and his luscious lips uttered—almost sang—his lines with a bogus-real British accent.
It wasn’t just all the silliness that got the gals to laughing: the over-sexedness and over-designedess of sight and sound in Don’t Worry Darling is dark and downright hilarious to anyone listening, looking, and lusting.