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Don’t Worry Darling review – Olivia Wilde’s retro mystery is something to fret over

The director's second film, thinly-drawn and repetitive, stars Florence Pugh as a woman trapped in an idyllic 1950s community

The critical and financial success of Booksmart essentially gave its director Olivia Wilde the kudos to make whatever she wanted as her follow-up. But the flimsy, underwritten Don't Worry Darling, a film mired in controversy in the weeks leading up to its unveiling at this year's Venice Film Festival, feels like a misstep. Here's a mystery-thriller with no intrigue or smarts beneath the surface, a repetitive, yawn-inducing skew of gender politics and toxic masculinity, drawing inspiration from The Truman Show and The Stepford Wives, with some Matrix thrown in for good measure, yet lacking any of the strengths of the films it steals from.

Florence Pugh is reliably compelling – though unchallenged – in the role of Alice, a housewife living in a postcard perfect 50s utopian society called Victory with her husband, Jack, played by pop singer-having-a-go-at-acting Harry Styles. They're just one of dozens of couples who inhabit a deceptively perfect plane of existence located out in the desert, with its chrome cars, cocktails, pool parties, and very traditional gender roles: Jack goes to work, Alice stays home. At night, they have sex and get drunk with their neighbours, enjoying a frivolous life free from the burden of children. Everything's swell, until it isn't.

Of course, we know that we're not being told everything, confirmed by the appearance of the society's all-too-charismatic founder (read as: cult leader) Frank (Chris Pine), prone to throwing out brainwashy- phrases like “modern society has smothered our true selves.” But once the inevitable cracks in this idyllic world begin to show, the movie deals us almost ninety minutes of Alice being repeatedly subjected to strange happenings and hallucinations, none of which move the plot forward in any way. The film quickly becomes trapped in a boring, repetitive cycle (Alice sees something fishy, has a breakdown, then wakes up in her bed, ad infinitum), made worse by the non-chemistry between its leads, and Styles' awkward performance (his soap-ish acting makes him look a bit ridiculous next to his co-star).

It's a shame, because the film itself, all sun-kissed vistas and sets dressed in bubblegum colours, looks great under the keen eye of DP Matthew Libatique. Wilde, too, clearly knows her way around a camera, and Don't Worry Darling shows plenty of inventive direction and a knack for staging – it's just wasted on paper-thin material. The Black Mirror-ish premise refuses to engage with anything even remotely weighty by design; this retro setting was seemingly primed to explore the subjugation of women through modern day juxtapositions, and – in its third act – aspects of incel culture, yet the film opts instead to exist in the most basic form, with no desire to do much but hinge on a groan-inducing twist it's easy to see coming at the five-minute mark.

Don't Worry Darling essentially feels like a short story padded out to feature length, its script fundamentally misunderstanding that a mystery needs to have more than just an answer at the end to make the journey compelling. And when this answer does come, it's uninspired, variations of which we've seen a dozen times before, but also vague and implausible, neither rich or interesting enough to warrant the two hour trip it takes to get there. This all might have been forgivable were the movie at least fun, but after a reasonably engaging opening stretch Wilde's swapping of substance for trippiness makes for frustrating, empty viewing. Like the inhabits of Victory, we're marooned in an endless desert of nothing.

Don't Worry Darling screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas on 23 September.

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