Warning: this article contains spoilers for the end of “Don’t Worry Darling.”
In a recent conversation for Interview Magazine, Olivia Wilde asked Maggie Gyllenhaal if she knows what incels are.
Gyllenhaal said no, she does not (honestly, we should all be so lucky). “They’re basically disenfranchised, mostly white men, who believe they are entitled to sex from women,” said Wilde. “Oh, right,” responded Gyllenhaal. A truly incredible exchange.
While simplistic, this is a pretty accurate one-line description of incels on Wilde’s part. But after watching “Don’t Worry Darling,” Wilde’s second feature film as a director and the film that instigated this little back and forth, I’m quite worried, darling, about this movie’s facile understanding of the driving force behind that culture.
From its screenplay to its direction, almost everything about “Don’t Worry Darling” leaves the viewer wanting. Its hypnotic cinematography and lush set design are given the mammoth task of hiding the fact that underneath that beautiful veneer, there’s nothing to be seen. Even a few good performances from the likes of Florence Pugh and Chris Pine can’t conceal that what the film asks them to deliver on are a slew of half-baked, muddled ideas about womanhood, relationships, and toxic masculinity.
Alice (Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) live in the company town of Victory, Calif., a sun-drenched, 1950s paradise. In Victory, men go to work and women keep house – cleaning, cooking, and ready at the door with a Manhattan in hand at 6 p.m. In their downtime, Alice and Jack drink, party, and have copious amounts of sex – or so we’re led to believe (“You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve heard,” smirks Alice’s nextdoor neighbor Bunny (Wilde). But when Alice’s friend Margaret (Kiki Layne) takes her own life, and Alice herself starts to have visions she can’t explain, she begins to question the nature of her relationship with Jack as well as the very nature of Victory itself.
To unpack how the film goes wrong, I’m going to delve into some spoiler territory. If you have not seen “Don’t Worry Darling” and wish to remain pure, turn back now.
Through a series of flashbacks, we find out that before Alice and Jack came to Victory, they were not the picture of mid-century happiness they appear to be. In fact, they weren’t in the 1950s at all. The film’s third act reveals that everything happening in Victory is taking place in the present day.
But that’s not all. It turns out Victory is not a real town, but a simulation created by a man named Frank (Pine), described by Wilde as a Jordan Peterson-esque figure who believes in staunch gender roles and returning men to their former glory. Fed-up with Alice’s work schedule (she was a surgeon) and lack of libido, Jack – equipped with glasses and a bad goatee, a far cry from the baby-faced sweetness of his 1950s counterpart – sedates her, and forces her into this bizarre metaverse in the hope that they can be happy together.
It’s quite obvious early on that the events of the film are taking place in the present. That’s a testament to the set design, its decor less reminiscent of the actual 1950s than how we as 21st century people might imagine that decade to be. Everything’s a little too polished, a little too glamorous. But the reveal that this Palm Springs knock-off is the world an incel would create if he had the means is more baffling than unnerving, as is almost all of the film’s visual language.
The visual cues that Wilde deploys are intended to disquiet, but to what end? Alice’s hallucinations often materialize in the form of dancers straight out of a Busby Berkely musical – black and white, flawlessly symmetrical, the picture of perfection. But beyond Frank’s wife Shelley (Gemma Chan), none of the women are giving robotic, Stepford excellence, and Jack doesn’t appear to be interested in Alice as the subdued housewife. The debauchery that both men and women enjoy in Victory belies this sinister imagery, leaving it empty.
Much likes its visual language, the sexual politics of Victory don’t pan out if you think about them for more than a few seconds. On the “Don’t Worry Darling” press tour, Wilde has proudly touted the fact that only women orgasm in this movie. In both of their love scenes, Jack and Alice do not have penetrative sex, and Jack never finishes, the camera honed in on Alice’s pleasure alone. Seeing female pleasure on screen might feel like a small victory, but it’s completely antithetical to everything we’re led to believe this movie wants to critique. An incel’s particular brand of misogyny – one rooted in self-loathing, one that endorses violence against women who are sexually active – is not something I would think would translate to generosity in bed. Yet, Jack isn’t interested in his own sexual pleasure at all. Wilde is correct in saying incels feel entitled to sex from women, but the idea that the entitlement wouldn’t include fellatio is laughable. If all anyone wanted was a cocktail in hand at 6 p.m. paired with the opportunity to go down on his wife, things might be much simpler.
The actors do their best to make this baffling scenario work, but they’re bogged down by script limitations. Pugh, who seems incapable of delivering a bad performance at this point, might achieve true movie star status, if only because she’s able to hold a disappointing film together by sheer force of will. The few scenes that actually sizzle with something – anything – take place between her and Pine. He wears confident, sleazy salesman as well as he wears nice clothes, easily manipulating Pugh as rage and frustration seep out of every pore in her body. Their moments crackle with psychosexual tension I wouldn’t mind watching hours of, and they have way more chemistry than Pugh does with her more frequent scene partner, Styles.
There’s been a lot of online ridicule of Styles’ performance – much of it before the movie even premiered – and while the rumors are true (he’s no good in the role), I almost feel bad that he was put in this position in the first place. Jack’s character is not particularly well-written or complex, but it is the role in the film with the most layers, and Styles’ blank-slate look is not up to the challenge.
As Bunny, Alice’s friend and neighbor, Wilde ends up giving herself the most interesting role, but spends no time unpacking her. It’s revealed at the end of the film that Bunny has chosen to live in this simulation voluntarily. There’s a nugget of something complex there – how white women can be complicit in their own oppression, and will choose their own comfort over action – but the moment is over in a flash, and the film continues its run of tangled nonsense to its conclusion.
Long story short, maybe we should be a little worried. And maybe Maggie Gyllenhaal should do her own research on the subject.