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'Don't Worry Darling': Stylish but empty thriller traps Pugh, Styles


On second thought, darlings, maybe worrying isn't such a bad idea.

"Don't Worry Darling," director Olivia Wilde's limp psychological thriller about a couple living in an idealized version of 1950s America, suffers from a severe case of what's going on here?-ism, exacerbated by our viewing habits in a post-Shyamalan world. In other words: look, we all know a twist is coming, so is it going to make sense or will it leave us rolling our eyes?

Think the latter. It's possible there was a time, back in the '90s, when "Don't Worry Darling" would have been able to pull the wool over our eyes and the rug out from underneath our feet, and we'd all leave wowed at the narrative slight of hand on display. But in a world of telegraphed swerves, "Don't Worry Darling's" doesn't hold water, and it asks more questions than it answers.

Florence Pugh and Harry Styles are Alice and Jack Chambers, a young couple living an impossibly perfect, Stepford-like existence in the fictional town of Victory, California. All the men wear suits and work corporate jobs at the Victory Project, aiding in the "development of progressive materials," purposely vague terminology in a time and place where questions are not meant to be asked. The women, meanwhile, are homemakers, making sure everything is spiffy, the kids are taken care of and their husbands have a hot meal and a cold martini waiting for them by the time they get home. When they say "Make America Great Again," this is the old-fashioned idea of America to which they're clinging. (Maybe keep that nugget tucked under your hat for now.)

Alice and Jack don't have kids, a choice they've made together, and a point of gossip for the other neighborhood wives, including Bunny (Wilde, pulling double duty), Alice's bestie. Meanwhile the Victory Project's founder, Frank (Chris Pine), makes periodic appearances at neighborhood functions, oozing Big Leader energy and spouting off about ideas of control and progress like a cult leader. Wait, is that what he is? Is the Victory Project a cult?

It's clear from the jump that there's something fishy going on in Victory, especially when Alice's neighbor Margaret (KiKi Layne) slits her throat, falls from her roof and is taken away by a team of mysterious individuals, and no one wants to talk about it. And then there's that plane that Alice sees crash in the distance. When she goes off to investigate, she ends up at a mysterious residence, and the next thing she knows she's back in her bed and it's the next morning, and her experience is brushed off and treated like a dream.

Hmm. (Cue ominous music, and grab a martini.)

"Don't Worry Darling" is scripted by Katie Silberman, one of the writers on Wilde's delightful 2019 high school comedy "Booksmart," from a story by Silberman and Carey and Shane Van Dyke. While we eventually do get answers to the central question of "what is going on here?" the specific, important details of that revelation are skimmed over, leaving gaping holes pertaining to the logic and reality of what's happening and major logistical issues left unexplained. The social, sexual and political messaging is blunt, but practical issues linger. Imagine a "Black Mirror" episode that doesn't bother wrapping things up, and you've got an idea of "Don't Worry Darling."

That doesn't take anything away from its performances, especially Pugh, who brings viewers as far as she can in making her terror, confusion and slow-building case of claustrophobia palpable and believable to the viewer. It's her movie to carry, and in less capable hands, "Don't Worry Darling" would fall apart a lot of earlier than it does.

Styles, an incredibly gifted and charismatic pop star, makes a slight but smooth transition to the big screen; his is a secondary role, and he plays it as such, and he wisely doesn't try to outshine Pugh. Pine, meanwhile, is extremely effective in a small, understated role.

The true star here is Palm Springs, which stands in for Victory, which has perhaps never photographed better on screen. Wilde and her team ‒ including cinematographer Matthew Libatique ("A Star is Born," Darren Aronofsky's films) and production designer Katie Byron ‒ bring the desert to sun-blasted life, accentuating the clean lines of its mid-century architecture and the ways they're in conflict with the city's imposing, jagged mountain backdrop. For whatever turns the narrative takes, "Don't Worry Darling" is a gorgeous looking movie, and the desert oasis comes away with a clear victory with its role.

The rest of "Don't Worry Darling," not so much. It's an intriguing ride that is undone by its own mechanics, and a twist that doesn't hold up to any sort of smell test. The incessant tabloid drama (casting, on set drama, alleged premiere spitting) that surrounded its release will eventually fade, as tabloid drama does. But what's left is a movie that swings big, misses its target and leaves you wondering what all the fuss was about.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Don't Worry Darling'

GRADE: C-

Rated R: for sexuality, violent content and language

Running time: 123 minutes

In theaters