Is it scientifically possible for a husband to be more of a swoon-a-licious dreamboat than Harry Styles? As Jack Chambers in Don’t Worry Darling, he’s handsome, debonair, a hard worker on an enviable wage – and by all indications, a lover of considerable talent. Certainly, Jack’s spouse Alice (Florence Pugh) can’t seem to believe her luck. You might even say she’s in Wonderland.
Home, for this indecently attractive pair, is a manicured midcentury desert idyll: think Mad Men-era Palm Springs. While Jack drives off to work at an underground facility just beyond the city limits with the rest of the menfolk, Alice plays the perfect housewife, cleaning, shopping, cooking, and trying not to worry her pretty little head about what her man does all day, or how exactly it sustains her blissful existence.
Such is life in this citrus-sharp psychological thriller from Olivia Wilde. It arrives after an enjoyably snippy briefing war – sorry, press tour – in which various production grievances, from the departure of original leading man Shia LaBeouf to the on-set relationship between Wilde and Styles (the two remain an item), have been thrashed out in the Hollywood trade press.
For a mediocre film, this could have been wounding. But happily, Wilde’s is largely fantastic: the sort of juicy but accessible studio production that have all but vanished since 1990s. Written by Katie Silberman, who also penned Wilde’s 2019 high-school comedy Booksmart, its Stepford Wives influence is immediately obvious. And while the women here aren’t exactly benumbed drones – they actively relish their endless leisure time in gorgeous surrounds – Alice knows instinctually that something’s not right.
A series of odd visions and reality-splintering mishaps make her wonder if she’s losing her marbles, and perhaps the film layers these on a bit thick. (The old flourish of cutting from a scene of mounting panic to the routine start of another day is overused.) But Wilde creates a sustained mood of seductive intrigue in this place, while Pugh makes for an ideal, increasingly mistrustful guide. The 26-year-old Oxford-born actress has been earmarked as a next big thing since 2016’s Lady Macbeth, and in this she graduates to fully fledged movie star – poised, glamorous and bogglingly beautiful, yet also emotionally right beside you, and lifting every scene with sparklingly smart choices.
During a tense dinner party, Alice puts her concerns to Chris Pine’s Frank, the community’s chiselled founder, who is clearly something of a role model to its younger male occupants. Pine is terrific, nicely judging the slow slide of Frank’s sunny carpe diem shtick into full-blown incel toxicity, and slickly pinning down one of the film’s central themes: how easily and often women’s misgivings are dismissed as paranoia by the very males who later prove them well-founded.
Alongside such prowess, the 28-year-old Styles can’t help but look outclassed. But the former One Directioner is far from embarrassing – and in the end, his half-suave, half-gawky, never entirely convincing performance chimes with the film’s showpiece twist in some fun if presumably unintended ways. (To explain why would give the game away – but suffice it to say Jack’s alpha-male provider-slash-lothario image is an increasingly wobbly charade.)
Even his incongruous Northern accent is explained, sort of, in a flurry of loose-end tethering that occupies the film’s final half hour, when what’s really been going on here is finally spelled out. Much of this – including a charged, lingering close-up Wilde gives to her own character, a cocktail-swilling mother of two called Bunny, which is initially hard to read, but has a harrowing meaning which is revealed in due course – is excellent. Other elements are sloppier, including the sudden death of a major supporting character – it’s as if Wilde and Silberman had always intended for it to happen somehow, then realised on the last day of filming they hadn’t come up with the scene yet.
Even so, things keep barrelling along thanks to both Pugh and the plot’s punchy critique of certain recent trends in the internet’s more testosterone-raddled dark corners. With a smudgy red-lipsticked grin, Don’t Worry Darling drags them out into the blazing desert light.
15 cert, 122 min. In cinemas now