At The Movies: Don’t Worry Darling needs to go to darker places to shine

(From left) Florence Pugh and Harry Styles in Don't Worry Darling. PHOTO: Warner Bros

Don’t Worry Darling (M18)

122 minutes, opens Thursday

2 stars

The story: Alice (Florence Pugh) believes she has the best of all possible lives – she has a loving husband and reliable provider, Jack (Harry Styles), whose job at the mysterious Victory Project comes with benefits that include their spacious home in the tight-knit company town of Victory.

In return, she builds her life around him by cooking elaborate meals, keeping the home spotless and never looking less than ravishing. She feels blessed to have company because, like her, all the wives living there put their husbands first, always.

There is an intriguing premise at the heart of this mystery thriller, but the idea is wrestled with so weakly that by the film’s climax, audiences might find it hard to care.

It opens in a classic movie setting: The 1950s American town that looks perfect, but which has a weird vibe.

Alice knows she has everything a housewife from that era could want, but her happiness is tainted by intrusive thoughts.

Husband Jack and her neighbour Bunny (director Olivia Wilde, taking a supporting role) tell her that her digging will only bring unnecessary suffering.

But Alice’s disquiet grows, especially after she comes to know Jack’s boss, the company head Frank (Chris Pine) and his wife Shelley (Gemma Chan).

Pugh is in fine form as the classic gaslighted heroine, a woman who follows her instinct for truth, even if it leads her into trouble. The rising young English actress displays the fierce intelligence found in her character from horror film Midsommar (2019). That energy is one of the few things Don’t Worry Darling has going for it.

Scenes of marital conflict and reconciliation – which include episodes of lovemaking that have set the Internet buzzing – feel like distracting misfires.

The seductive visuals aim to show that Alice sometimes benefits from a system that oppresses her, but there is no ugliness to balance out the prettiness. It feels like a triumph of style over substance and, worse, a contradiction of the film’s central message.

It is a common storytelling fault, found in films that say that beneath the streets of this sleek futuristic city, there are rat-filled sewers, then forget to show the rats.

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Wilde’s debut directorial feature, the anarchic coming-of-age comedy Booksmart, was among this reviewer’s favourite films of 2019.

So this surface-level look at a woman’s struggle with her role as a traditional wife (or “tradwife” in the language of men’s rights activists) feels like a letdown.

Hot take: After a promising start, there is much to worry about when the movie stops short of going to the dark places that it needs to go to to prove its point.

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