Florence Pugh plays Alice in the psychological thriller "Don't Worry Darling" directed by Olivia Wilde

Olivia Wilde’s psychological thriller brings new meaning to the term “gated community”. Beautiful people live in beautiful homes. The husbands work office hours, the wives spend the day shopping or poolside, and occasionally the couples get together for a fancy soiree. It’s a 1950s utopia, with a few minor problems; planes fall out of the sky, men in red jumpsuits haul people away, and occasionally someone attempts suicide. Nothing local HOA president Frank (Chris Pine) can’t fix. Florence Pugh and Harry Styles play one of the couples in what can be described as the movie offspring of Rod Serling and Donna Reed.

There’s a heavy “Stepford Wives” vibe going on here, however, below the surface Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial feature is nothing like the 1975 satirical thriller which starred Katherine Ross, or its 2004 reboot with Nicole Kidman. The housewives in those films averaged mid-30s, here, the focus is on a younger generation. Wilde, who is 38, was originally going to play the lead role but switched places with Pugh (age 26) after deciding she wanted a younger couple as the film’s protagonists. On several levels, the story works much better with the focus on a newlywed stage duo. With youth comes inexperience and so the dynamic of being the film’s hero against a veteran antagonist is more dramatic.

Pugh and Styles play Alice and Jack Chambers. Life is good, sex is better. They live on a cul-de-sac in Victory, California, a small community that resembles Palm Springs, created by the local employer The Victory Project headed by Frank (Pine), a mysterious cult-like figure who is married to Shelly (Gemma Chan). I feel she is the real brains behind the operation. It would have been great to see Chan’s role expanded. For most of the film, Shelly is a chameleon, blending in with the scenery until she engages with Pugh during a dinner table scene that casts a new light on her character. It should have led to a great rivalry between Chan and Pugh, a missed opportunity.

Like the other wives, Alice packs her husband’s lunch every morning, walks him out to the car, and waves goodbye as he and the other men pull out of their driveways at the exact same time as if they’re competing in a new Olympic event, Synchronized Driving. Off they go, into the desert to put in an 8-hour day at The Victory Project, as the wives remain clueless about the work their husbands do. It’s top secret and classified, according to the men, and should anyone start asking too many questions, a bunch of goons in red jumpsuits show up to whisk you away.

Wilde plays Bunny, one of the first Victory residents, who serves as the wives’ preceptor. Her husband Bill (Nick Kroll) functions in a similar role to the men. Whenever someone seems to be straying from the path Frank has created, they play damage control. You’re never sure if they know what’s going on or if they are trying to stop anyone from ruining their comfortable utopian lifestyle.

And speaking of life, it’s perfect in Victory. The men work office jobs, drive fancy cars, drink, smoke, and have sex as much as they want — if Jack is representative of the collective, then they all know where to find the G-spot — and on the flip side, the women are sexually fulfilled, shop with unlimited credit, drink and gossip poolside, and practice ballet taught by Shelly. This leads to a couple of nightmarish sequences reminiscent of 2018’s “Suspiria” once Alice begins to break down, more on that coming up.

Kiki Layne plays Margaret, who isn’t herself these days. In fact, she begins warning the other couples that something sinister is going on in Victory. You can imagine what happens next, but her foresight or paranoia causes a ripple effect that hits Alice the hardest. She notices peculiar things, like planes falling out of the sky, later everyone denies there was a plane crash. She begins having terrifying hallucinations, eggs are just empty shells with nothing inside, and the walls at home start closing in as if she’s trapped in a box. When Alice begins asking Jack questions about the Victory Project, the company’s physician Dr. Collins (Timothy Simmons) shows up with a handy bottle of pills to calm her down.

Playing it cool, maybe too cool, during all of this is the mysterious Frank, a motivational speaker who spends the day delivering pep talks to the wives via radio broadcast, throwing lavish parties on occasion to thank everyone for their “loyalty” and when he asks, “What are we doing?” the couples respond, “Changing the world.” But what are they doing at the Victory Project? Tremors are a common occurrence in Victory, yes, it’s California, but these are no earthquakes, they happen too often. Bunny plays off the tiny earthquakes by stating, “Boys and their toys, at least we know they’re getting work done.”

When Frank and Shelly show up for a dinner party at the Chambers’ home, Alice uses the occasion to directly engage Frank. When Jack tries to quiet her, Frank interrupts, “Jack, it’s okay, I’m curious to hear where she’s going with this” as if he’s looking forward to someone challenging him. The tension escalates and the seemingly perfect world begins to unravel at an alarming pace.

The cinematography by Matthew Libatique, Oscar-nominated for his work on “Black Swan” and Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born”, is gorgeous while Katie Byron’s production design is impeccable, both deserve to be recognized by the Academy during awards season.

Everyone and everything look beautiful in Wilde’s film which clocks in at just over two hours. Much of the running time is spent preparing the audience for the big reveal, too much time in fact. I would have preferred the moment about 30 minutes earlier leaving plenty of time for the fallout, but here, as in many films, the audience is left to speculate what happens next. Had there been a post-reveal sequence, the film would have worked better, as is, “Darling” gives off the impression that it’s missing the final reel.

Still, Wilde does an exceptional job with her second feature behind the camera. Pugh is terrific, with the rest of the cast delivering solid performances. I do feel that Styles was trying too hard, his character comes off as artificial and the dialogue is hokey.

There’s a bizarre dance sequence where Styles resembles a puppet dancing onstage who seems to be controlled by Frank, the sinister P.T. Barnum puppeteer. As a “Star Trek” fan it reminded me of the television episode where Kirk’s mind is being controlled by the Platonians who force him to dance with Lt. Uhura (R.I.P. Nichelle Nichols). Watching Pine who plays Kirk in the recent films, on the flip side of the telekinesis hoedown, felt like karma. Unfortunately, I was hoping for a “disengage” command as the whole scene felt out of place.

“Don’t Worry Darling” has many admirable traits including the score by John Powell. From sweeping orchestral overtures to whispers and sound effects that fluctuate between chants and vocals thrown into an oscillating fan, it’s haunting and tense. In the end, it’s an exceptional thriller that could have used a little less “Real Housewives” and more sci-fi horror.

(3 stars)

Now showing in theaters

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.