One day, riding the trolley into town, Alice sees a plane crash in the distance. Breaking one of the cardinal rules of Victory (don’t wander out into the desert) Alice approaches headquarters, a mirrored spaceship-like building on a dusty hill. Hands against the glass, fractured memories of some other life beam into her head in heavy drones. Then she wakes up in her bed, Jack cooking dinner in the kitchen. She begins humming a tune, the same tune, on loop. The Victory project wants to blast off into the future but the future looks a lot like a scrubbed image of the 1950s past. Everywhere: circles, loops, cul-de-sacs. Like Frank’s Victory Project, Don’t Worry Darling claims to be progressive material but refuses to develop a meaningful relationship to either the simulated past or the real present. The film is a symptom of a larger cultural derangement: an inability to deal with the past and with those it doesn’t understand with anything other than contempt.
I’ll begin with the film’s anticlimactic twist. Victory is not actually a 1950s suburban desert town, but rather a simulation made possible by technological innovations in the present. The streets are squeaky clean and overhead shots of the spiraling manicured houses suggest monotony, surveillance, paranoia, order, and a bad trip. Alice (Florence Pugh) vacuums her shag rug, zombie-like in her pastel living room. Suburban neighborhoods, deserts, and simulations are zones of escape, entrapment, revelation, and mirage. When Alice begins to wonder what the Victory Project really is and why she’s here, the slick veneer begins to unravel in what seems like a series of technological glitches. She beats her head against the glass doors like a trapped bird, has visions of drowning, attempts to suffocate herself with saran wrap, and flashes back to a fuzzy past where her husband Jack (Harry Styles) is jobless as she tells him not to worry, she’ll take more shifts.
Don’t Worry Darling, the second feature film from actor and director Olivia Wilde takes place in the 1950s desert town of Victory. In Victory, all the men work at the mysterious Victory Project which specializes in “the development of progressive materials.” Frank is Victory Project’s founder, portrayed in creepily charismatic fashion by Chris Pine and worshiped by the thirty-six couples chosen to live in this idyllic arena. Frank’s hypnotic self-help style speeches extol progress, order, and power and vilify chaos. Jack heads off to headquarters everyday with the rest of the boys in choreographed unison as Alice waves him farewell under the bright desert sky. During the day, Alice gossips with a neighbor named Bunny (Olivia Wilde) and listens to Frank’s voice on the radio, espousing the beauty and safety of the town of Victory, insulated from the dangerous world outside.
From above, the suburban neighborhood surrounded by desert looks like a miniature universe. Suburbia, neither city nor country, with its clean lines and swept streets, suggests an eerie veneer covering another more sinister zone. It recalls that earlier template for suburban horror: the opening sequence of David Lynch’s 1986 Blue Velvet. Bobby Vinton’s hypnotic “Blue Velvet” plays as images appear in dreamy succession: white picket fences behind tulips blowing in the wind, children crossing the street in an orderly fashion, a man watering his garden with a hose as his wife drinks tea inside. Suddenly, the hose gets blocked, twists around some branches, and as the man tries to right it, has a stroke and falls to the ground. The hose’s glitch gives way to bodily breakdown as the camera sinks low where the man lies squirming in pain. The camera sinks deeper, to where the rumble of grubs under the dirt overtakes the frame. Under every picket fence, nature’s dense violence.
Betty Friedan devoted her 1963 feminist classic The Feminine Mystique to describing and diagnosing what was going on inside those idyllic suburban homes, specifically inside the wives and mothers responsible for their care and upkeep, which also meant the upkeep of a particular sort of image. Fastened to a seemingly blissful domestic realm hiding a terrible malaise, Friedan found that these women were sad and empty, plagued by what she called “the problem that has no name.” Friedan writes:
Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – “Is this all?”
Olivia Wilde describes Don’t Worry Darling as “The Feminine Mystique on acid.” Like Blue Velvet, Don’t Worry Darling plays on collective images of American suburbs and 1950s media to posit two worlds: an image and a reality. Unlike Blue Velvet, the world under the image doesn’t reveal larger truths about the past/present. Instead of a trip which uncovers complex human relationships, ambiguity, eroticism, or revelation, Don’t Worry Darling shows the real world powering the simulation as a place where both men and women appear miserable and lonely without ever exploring the deeper societal roots of their afflictions. More specifically: what present sickness is Victory a symptom of? We’ve long known that many women felt trapped in their seemingly gleaming 1950s lives. So while Don’t Worry Darling might look a little like The Feminine Mystique on acid with its halos of light, popping colors, and mid-century appliances, it yields no new acid-fueled epiphanies.
Instead of inducing a pleasing ambiguity like this year’s other retro-thriller Blonde, the film left me feeling baffled and empty like Alice when she holds an egg up to the light and crushes it to find there’s nothing inside. All shells, no food. Eggs and other round shapes are ubiquitous in the film. An eye takes up the whole frame, giving way to women dancing in circles; cars drive in loops around the desert kicking up circle-shaped dust; Alice and Jack live on a gleaming cul-de-sac at the end of a street, closed at one end. There’s no way out, round and round they go.
Every morning, overhead shots show Alice sizzling fat round yolks on the pan and pouring coffee. I guess we’re meant to accept that these repetitions and loops mean these routines are monotonous and oppressive. But the film never shows what present chaos might compel a person to lust after a bygone order. As I watched Alice crack the eggs morning after morning, I thought of the opening lines of Joan Didion’s 1972 essay “The Women’s Movement,” a dryly funny critique of second wave feminism:
To make an omelet you need not only those broken eggs but someone “oppressed” to break them: every revolutionist is presumed to understand that, and also every woman, which either does or does not make 51 per cent of the population of the United States a potentially revolutionary class.
Didion suggests that the women’s movement was not only about a resistance to stereotyped images or firmly held gender roles, but also to “adult sexual life itself: much cleaner to stay children forever.” Likewise, the apparent feminism of Wilde’s film feels like a shield used to block the more complex nuances of adult relationships. The film doesn’t have a point of view on sexual politics so much as a didactic mass of takes that never take off. An example: At the beginning, Alice and Jack seem to be on a perma-honeymoon. As Wilde told Variety: “men don’t cum in this movie.” But as we know, Alice has been forced into this world she’s having so much sex in. And so, the apparently hot and female-pleasure-centric romps were nonconsensual, as husbands are responsible for the care and upkeep of their chosen wives.
Why are we here? Is this all? What is Victory? Why don’t I remember the past? Who is Frank really? When Alice asks one too many questions and begs Jack to leave Victory with her, they get in the car. But instead of driving off, a group of men in red jumpsuits carry her away screaming before strapping her to a hospital bed for electro-shock therapy. She loops back to Victory seemingly refreshed and replenished, but when Jack starts humming a familiar tune, other visions arrive as she realizes that Jack, her apparently loving husband who goes down on her on the kitchen table, forced her into this world and this role within it.
This was a place for the film to explore more complicated notions about sexuality, consent, abduction, and adult relationships. Instead, Alice smashes a glass over Jack’s head with apparently enough force to kill him. She runs to headquarters, chased by those men in red jumpsuits, and apparently exits the simulation. The end. Alice asks The Feminine Mystique’s silent question: Is this all? and finds her own life under the pretty simulation. But what are the nuances of the life was Alice taken from? What life is she returning to?
The Victory Project’s funnily vague mission: “the development of progressive materials” coupled with endless images of circles and dead ends, suggests technology’s amnesia-inducing ability to keep us trapped in an endless algorithmic loop and derange our relationship to a time. That technology which presents itself as progressive is often used for regressive or ensnaring purposes is hardly news, though the film would’ve benefited from exploring the reasons behind those twin impulses towards technological transcendence and a yearning for an imaginary past.
In their desaturated pre-simulation lives, of which we’re given only quick and icky glimpses, we glean that Alice is a doctor and Jack is sexually frustrated because Alice is too tired to have sex when she gets home from thirty-hour shifts. Jack has lost his job and expresses sadness that he can’t take better care of Alice. He listens to Frank’s lectures on the computer, slumped before the screen. He applies to the Victory Project. Dishes pile up in the sink. There’s no more hot water. Jack gets accepted into the Victory Project. Alice gets forcibly strapped to the bed, her eyes held open by silver speculums as they dart around the room. Lying down next to Alice, Jack hums that same tune and hooks himself up to the simulation machine, too. But the film doesn’t get close enough to Jack to reveal what deeper personal and societal circumstances might have driven him to such a horrific and desperate act as forcibly entering a woman he supposedly loves into a 1950s simulation, then strapping himself in.
What engines the Victory simulation is a diseased present that the film refuses to examine. Although Wilde told Variety that she researched the “disenfranchised world of white men on the internet,” the film’s myopic portrait of Jack and Alice’s real lives takes on a distanced stance of moral superiority which deletes any possibility for more complex characters.
Alice has two options: (1) a present in which she works endless hours at a job she loves but evacuates her of all sexual impulses while her boyfriend resents her, eventually entrapping her in a deranged version of the past created by a convincing podcaster (2) a simulated reality where her memories are wiped clean and where she has plenty of (fake/nonconsensual) sex. Rather than shedding new light on women in either the past or the future, Don’t Worry Darling depicts women victims and men as monstrous in both the past and the present, the real world and the fake one it birthed.
And so ultimately, Don’t Worry Darling suffers from the same affliction its cultish villain does: a refusal to form rich and nuanced relationships to either the past or the present. The film is a symptom of the present sickness which it refuses to investigate but instead depicts with a haughty finger wag. Trapped in an ideology that so many so-called progressives espouse, dismissing men who turn to Jordan Peterson as dangerous lost causes instead of delving into what appears to be a precarious and lonely existence in which Jack seeks solace and escape in an online guru extolling the virtues of order and responsibility. The film has contempt for Jack and so cannot show him to be anything other than a kind of caricature, suggesting that Jack’s desperate and violent actions were a result of listening to one too many conservative podcasts, his sexual advances rejected one too many times. This contempt for both the past and for Jack forecloses the possibility of real stakes. As Don’t Worry Darling beamed its overcooked metaphors for oppression into my eyes, I wondered … is this all?