- The Current UMSL
Don't Worry Darling
By: Cat Hill
By this point, everyone has heard of Olivia Wilde’s psychological thriller, Don’t Worry Darling. Leading up to its release in September, the film received a lot of attention on social media for its illusive trailer, the shenanigans on premier night, and especially for its stacked cast. The stars, Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, and Chris Pine dominate alongside an industry-acclaimed supporting cast, including Gemma Chan, Kiki Layne, and comedy’s Nick Kroll. While the cast received a lot of publicity due both to Florence Pugh’s rapid rise in popularity and especially to Harry Styles’s leading debut, details about the story itself were handled with more mystery. This is likely intentional because of the film’s inherently perplexing and psychological elements that require an unassuming audience.
Don't Worry Darling follows Alice (Pugh), a young woman who lives with her husband, Jack (Styles) in a 1950s-era town called Victory, which is surrounded by a long stretch of desert on all sides. The town is populated by the families of men who work for the “Victory Project”, a top-secret initiative that none of the workers can ever talk about, even to their wives, who are instructed not to cross the town’s borders due to dangerous conditions beyond. Life inside Victory seems ideal – almost utopian due to the wealth, marital contentment, and community among the families. However, after a chance witness encounter pushes Alice to cross the town border, she begins to question her surroundings, noticing strange inconsistencies in her physical environment and questioning the motivating forces of the town’s domestic bliss. She becomes determined to figure out and expose the truth about the Victory Project, even if she must uproot her reality in the process.
Cinematically, Don’t Worry Darling exhibits mesmerizing visual aesthetics with clear intentionality behind them. The sets and costumes employ a vibrant color palette for the Victory location, which was filmed in Palm Springs. Rich floral patterns, powder blue suits, pastel vintage cars, and brightly dyed lawns pop in the California sunshine. This color scheme also reinforced the seemingly perfect life the couples were living in. The color splashes are especially striking against the backdrop of mid-century modern architecture in the film. The subtle design style (characterized by its geometric emphasis, functional minimalism, earthy tones, and extensive window lighting) contributes to the setting’s complexity by adding the illusion of structure and stability. Collectively, the design elements in Don’t Worry Darling establish a utopian aesthetic that combines domestic uniformity with “Golden Age” idealism, and it has a peculiar – somewhat twisted – appeal.
While the visual aesthetic establishes the fundamental allure in Don’t Worry Darling, the film utilizes other sensory phenomena for expressionistic effect. Specifically, the consistent use of abstract imagery throughout the film induces psychological tension and confusion, while giving the appearance of structure. These clips begin to appear more frequently as Alice’s questions and paranoia build, creating a constant state of perceptual dysregulation. Certain fragments seem to portray realistic scenes in Alice’s memory: muted clips of her dancing or hugging Jack, and momentary still shots of a room or a desk. Others show cryptic imagery, such as a blood droplet hitting a white surface, and a pupil expanding and shrinking. The most repetitive and psychologically interpretive of these is a clip of a group of women in a synchronized dance in the style of Busby Berkeley. This type of choreography is immensely strict and intricate, as it creates a moving, kaleidoscopic image through the formation and isolated movements of the dancers. These clips have a mesmerizing effect, but they also resonate as deeply unsettling due to their psychologically heightened placements and lack of legitimate context (which is also the case for the rest of the clips). Some of these fragments develop minor levels of interpretive context as the plot progresses, but their primary purpose is to unsettle the audience. The cinematography manipulates the psychological perceptions and reactions of viewers in a way that is frustrating, mesmerizing, and ultimately, impossible to ignore. We later find out that these images were the opening scene to this virtual reality Alice was trapped in.
Aside from the stylistic elements of the film, Don’t Worry Darling is also remarkable for its portrayal of complex and relevant themes. As previously noted, the visuals of the film clearly allude to attitudes about domestic life and feminism, especially in women. Specifically, the range of mindsets in female characters reflect the psychosocial nuances among women in a patriarchal society. The audience naturally empathizes with Alice, who develops distrust of overpowering male dominance without resentment of her submissive role with Jack. Most of the women in Victory similarly tolerate their own submission while forming individual views regarding large-scale patriarchal dominance. Alice pushes against the patriarchy because of its oppressive capabilities and potential harm to other women, and this is an approachable mindset for viewers to connect with. However, her best friend, Bunny (Olivia Wilde), submits to both the domestic and societal levels of misogyny to preserve her benefits within it; she is unwilling to risk her own comfort for the sake of other women, and she subtly silences people who question or challenge the system. While Bunny’s choices are hard to connect with in the film, her self-serving toleration of misogyny reflects an unfortunate trend amongst privileged women today. Other female characters in the film represent additional societal nuances: the insecurity and identity fragility that festers under misogynistic social standards; the ostracization and diminishment of noncompliant women through the label of “hysterical”; the patriarchal reliance on female opportunists to uphold the exploitation and oppression of women. The film recognizes these character complexities because they are as relevant in modern society as in mid-century suburban utopia, just under new contexts.
Overall, Don’t Worry Darling is an enticing and provocative film from both a cinematographic and a narrative perspective, and I recommend it for fans of psychological and interpretive concepts. However, the film’s greatest strength, in my opinion, is its artistic design element. The film has such a fundamental aesthetic appeal, along with numerous uses of abstract and interpretive visuals that distort senses and develop the film’s psychological tones. I encourage viewers to appreciate the film at this level by paying attention to the details to enhance both the narrative quality and artistic experience.