clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Unpacking the Twist Ending to ‘Don’t Worry Darling’

Offscreen drama aside, ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ is, in theory, a feminist thriller helmed by a promising filmmaker. So let’s evaluate it on those terms.

New Line Cinema/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At this point, to treat Don’t Worry Darling as an actual movie with a plot, script, and creative choices is to do it a favor. Olivia Wilde’s second film as a director has spent the past month engulfed in a flood of leaked videos, canceled interviews, and alleged spit, a PR fiasco we don’t need to revisit here. (Though my colleague Katie Baker put together a comprehensive guide.) But at the end of the day, Don’t Worry Darling isn’t just an occasion for fervent gossip or Miss Flo memes. It is, in theory, a feminist thriller helmed by a promising filmmaker whose debut was profitable and well liked enough to spark an 18-way bidding war for her follow-up. And it deserves to be evaluated on those terms, too.

Don’t Worry Darling is also a mystery of sorts. The question of what, exactly, lies beneath its glossy, mid-century surface is meant to drive audience interest, not the all-but-confirmed rumors that Wilde and leading lady Florence Pugh are on the outs. The gossip mill had other plans, of course. But that doesn’t mean the heavily teased twist isn’t worth unpacking—if only because it proves the film doesn’t need the extracurricular hoopla to fall short on its own terms.

The setup, at least, draws us in. Pugh stars as Alice, a dutiful housewife in a planned community known as the Victory Project. (Victory may be fictional, but its looming mountains, surrounding desert, and sleek architecture are unmistakably Palm Springs, where Wilde and her crew shot many scenes on location.) The cinematography and set design—by Matthew Libatique and Katie Byron, respectively—convey an Atomic Age idyll, one that entrances both Alice and the audience. Her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), works on a project he describes as “the development of progressive materials.” Only the men in Victory participate in this venture. Absent any further detail, Alice stays home all day to fix dinner, scrub the tub, and rock the occasional housecoat.

Jack and Alice aren’t alone in their seeming domestic bliss. Frank (Chris Pine), the head of the Victory Project, is more than just a boss; he’s a quasi guru, delivering constant diatribes—at house parties, on the radio—to his underlings about the importance of their work, without specifying what that work actually is. Frank’s wife, Shelley (Gemma Chan), is his loyal enforcer, preaching the virtues of order and control to a ballet class of bored homemakers. Alice’s peers include her best friend Bunny (Wilde), pregnant Peg (Kate Berlant), and Margaret (KiKi Layne), whose obvious depression, fear, and misery start to set off Alice’s alarm bells. Every day, the wives see their spouses off to work at the Victory Project’s mountaintop headquarters, a facility that’s firmly off-limits to those not on the payroll.

It’s clear that whatever’s going on in Don’t Worry Darling has something to do with gender, and more narrowly, heterosexual relationships. (Actual Palm Springs may have a queer history that dates back several decades, but this one is straight as an arrow.) The patronizing title recalls the central metaphor of Ingrid Bergman’s Gaslight, while Victory’s soulless conformity echoes the Connecticut of The Stepford Wives; more recently, the idea of sitcom-inflected domesticity as a cover for something more sinister formed the basis for WandaVision. But like WandaVision, the casting of several nonwhite actors suggests more contemporary politics than reference points like The Honeymooners—and that Don’t Worry Darling may not depict the 1950s we are used to seeing.

All of these influences play with the idea of imbalanced power dynamics, often against the backdrop of postwar prosperity. Bit by bit, Don’t Worry Darling starts to hint at the nature of its own asymmetry, which goes beyond earning power or even information. Alice sees a plane crash in the distance; when she tries to investigate, the search leads her to Victory HQ—but when she tries to peer inside, she wakes up in her own bed. Margaret slices her throat in front of Alice, but the Victory authorities insist she’s alive and getting treatment. (Margaret, too, had wandered out of bounds, then returned without her young son.) Alice starts to experience what seem like hallucinations: eggs with nothing inside their shells, or the walls of her house quite literally closing in.

Even before Don’t Worry Darling reveals its hand, Wilde fumbles the pacing of sporadic hints. Substantive clues are few and far between, so certain motifs—synchronized swimmers with deformed faces; a tune stuck in Alice’s head—get repeated ad nauseam, eroding their impact when stretched over two hours. Some scenes read like a payoff that’s missing any setup. In a tense confrontation with Frank at a dinner party, Alice points out that many couples in Victory share the same hometowns, honeymoon locales, and even meet-cutes. These details might seem eerie, except that we’ve never had a chance to observe them ourselves; they never come up until they’re used as a cudgel. The exchange is a classic example of tell over show, an instinct especially damaging to attempted suspense.

As in Midsommar, Pugh is excellent at mirroring our mounting unease. But Don’t Worry Darling centers on a marriage, meaning her performance can’t stand on its own. In his first leading role in a feature film, Styles gives the inverse of his onstage charisma. With the villain role outsourced to Frank, his Jack is almost a nonentity, neither menacing enough to inspire dread nor charming enough to make us root for the relationship in spite of ourselves. And given how much the endgame depends on our understanding of Jack and Alice’s dynamic, Styles’s shortcomings prove a fatal flaw.

Here, at last, we arrive at the dead end of the film’s suburban cul-de-sac. As Alice unravels, Wilde cuts abruptly to a flashback: Alice in an operating room—not as the patient, but as the doctor, and surrounded by modern equipment. She returns from a 30-hour shift to a decidedly less dapper Jack, unemployed and engrossed in a podcast from the manosphere whose host sounds suspiciously like Chris Pine. It turns out Wilde nearly spoiled her own movie when she told Maggie Gyllenhaal that Frank is based on Jordan Peterson. Frank may not preach an all-meat diet, but he does want to restore “the way things are supposed to be.” To make masculinity great again, Frank can’t literally turn back the clock. But he can settle for the next best thing.

Alice and the other wives, she discovers, don’t just support the Victory Project. They’re also its subjects. In the real world, Alice has been drugged, subdued, and strapped into a simulation where her partnership’s roles are reversed: Jack is the provider, with Alice stuck at home. Don’t Worry Darling may have shades of The Truman Show, but it’s really an attempt at a gendered version of The Matrix, a comparison that quickly turns unflattering.

The Matrix, for example, arrives at its iconic red pill moment early in the movie, giving the Wachowskis plenty of time to explore its implications and build out their dystopia. (That the red pill has been appropriated by the Franks and Jacks of the internet adds an extra layer of irony.) But Don’t Worry Darling opts to end with Alice waking up, an attempted mic drop that instead leaves the viewer with dozens of logistical nitpicks. Doesn’t Alice have friends, family, or colleagues who would notice her disappearance? If they do, what does Jack tell them? Who funds their life, or the Victory Project as a whole, if Alice isn’t working—Frank’s Patreon?

Nonsensical twists can be part of the fun, and ultimately forgivable. But the plot holes in Don’t Worry Darling are as much emotional as they are practical. Jack’s blank passivity saps his betrayal of any real surprise, the ultimate price of poor casting. (At least the spotty accent can be chalked up to an acting choice: The real Jack is American, so it makes sense the Victory version doesn’t always sound strictly British.) As Victory descends into chaos, Sherry turns on Frank, a reversal the rest of the film hasn’t so much as hinted at. Bunny admits she’s known the truth all along, but chose to stay in Victory because she’s a grieving mother who treasures her virtual kids. But if the target audience for the Victory Project are male incels, how did Bunny get involved, or figure out what had been done to her?

Above all, Don’t Worry Darling disappoints as social commentary. That’s in part because the script values grand gestures over exploring its own implications. Take Sherry, who could serve as a shrewd allegory for internalized misogyny—the women who serve as willing handmaidens to their own oppression. Instead, the movie offers an unearned triumph. It’s not the only one. Wilde made a point of centering female pleasure in the sex scenes, boasting in interviews that only women come on camera. But as the critic Esther Zuckerman has pointed out, that idealism doesn’t square with the Victory Project’s true nature. These men are selfish captors who have violated their partners’ consent as completely as one can. (It’s even implied not all the couples have a preexisting relationship.) Why would they bother making an effort in bed?

Even stripped of all these issues, Don’t Worry Darling builds to a point that’s trite and facile: that men are threatened by women’s success and yearn for their dependence. A more nuanced, introspective movie might grapple with an exhausted career woman’s conflicting desires, like a fictional spin on Ali Wong’s standup routine. Instead, Don’t Worry Darling picks at low-hanging fruit. In an effort to mine something interesting from my hours in the theater, I found myself speculating on whether Wilde was drawn to the script in the midst of her separation from longtime partner Jason Sudeikis, which came closely on the heels of her own professional breakthrough—a split that spilled over into the film’s rollout when she was served custody papers onstage at CinemaCon. Maybe the offscreen drama stole the show for a reason.