by MIKE ORLOCK
You won’t find a better-looking film this year than Don’t Worry Darling (R), actress and director Olivia Wilde’s sophomore follow-up to her 2019 critical darling, Booksmart. From Matthew Libatique’s luscious cinematography, to Katie Byron’s pastel-flavored production design, to Affonso Gonçalves’ crisp editing, this is one terrific-looking film: a technical tour de force that is a feast for the eyes. Expect Oscar nominations for some of these people early next year.
Wilde also gets an awards-caliber performance from Florence Pugh in the lead, an actress who might remind you (as she did me) of a young Kate Winslet in looks and range. It’s too bad that the script Wilde is working from – by Katie Silberman, adapting an original story by Carey and Shane Van Dyke – goes fuzzy when it should get sharp and leaves us scratching our heads wondering just what we’re supposed to make of the ending. Is it an allegory? A horror twist? A political statement? A bit of everything all at once?
Pugh plays Alice, a 1950s housewife who’s living the dream in Victory, a desert community somewhere in the Southwest. Everyone lives in spacious ranch homes with lots of windows looking out on fabulous views of mountains and deserts. The men of Victory leave each workday morning in choreographed, candy-colored sedans, waving to one another with neighborly good cheer.
The women keep tidy houses in full-skirted dresses and heels – when they aren’t enjoying afternoon cocktails by the pool, sharing gossip about anyone who’s missing from the group. They’re promptly home, however, to greet their husbands with a drink and a kiss before dinner is served. To say that Victory gives off a Pleasantville vibe is understating things.
We learn that the men in town are all involved in working on a top-secret project under the direction of Frank (Chris Pine at his most cunningly rakish), who demands complete loyalty and discretion from his crew. British pop star Harry Styles plays Alice’s callow husband, Jack, whom Frank is grooming for a big promotion, much to the envy of Jack’s coworkers and golf buddies.
Life seems perfect for Alice and her gal pals (Bunny, Shelley and Margaret), but there are some nagging doubts that keep creeping up on her: Why can’t she remember details from her past? And why does everyone’s backstory of how they met and when they were recruited to live in Victory seem so scripted?
Wilde does a good job of building suspense in the most domestic situations, zeroing in on details such as eggs frying in pans and ice tinkling in tumblers as Alice gradually slides into paranoia and outright fear of everyone and everything she took for granted. Wilde also performs well in front of the camera as Bunny, who knows more about Victory than she’s telling. If only she had stuck the ending, Don’t Worry Darling would have ranked as one of the year’s best movies instead of a frustrating near miss.
Look for the film, currently only in theaters, on HBO Max sometime in late November.
I saw the film at the Sturgeon Bay Cinemas during its opening week, and I want to take a moment to give a well-deserved shout-out to the county’s only year-round commercial movie venue. The new manager, Patrice, has done a commendable job of giving a face-lift to this multiplex, perhaps more in atmosphere than physical renovation.
All movie theaters aren’t created equal, and although ours will never offer the fancy bells and whistles that patrons will find at the Marcus Bay Park in Green Bay (reclining lounge seating, for example), what Sturgeon Bay Cinema offers is a comfortable, clean setting in which to catch a film at a reasonable price. It also offers patrons a frequent-movie-goer card that earns them a free admission after 10 tickets. And the popcorn’s tasty and hot, too! What more could you ask?
In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for the Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate.