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'Don't Worry Darling' Review: Florence Pugh and Harry Styles Get Weird

Forget the offscreen drama: Olivia Wilde's glossy new film is a messy but stylish B-movie.

Florence Pugh drives across a desert in the movie Don't Worry Darling.
Florence Pugh drives across a desert in the movie Don't Worry Darling.
Warner Bros

In case you were worried, Don't Worry Darling is a perfectly serviceable slice of big-screen weirdness. This slick psychological drama is a glossy, stylishly surreal thriller with something to say, featuring an endless array of gorgeous fashions and Florence Pugh on excellent form. What more do you want?

In theaters Friday, Sept. 23, Don't Worry Darling stars Pugh as a glamorous 1950s housewife living a picture-perfect suburban life. She even has a trophy husband, played by pop star Harry Styles in a wardrobe of impeccable suits and enviable midcentury shirts. But none of the gossiping wives know where their husbands go each day in their shiny Cadillacs, and Pugh begins to wonder what's really driving the sun-dappled desert town's smoothly sinister leader, played by Chris Pine. No one else seems worried about it, darling, but there's definitely something weird going on in this retro utopia.

Director Olivia Wilde slowly cranks up the unsettling aspects of this odd idyll, tormenting Pugh's increasingly unsettled housewife with teasing visions and mounting paranoia. Wilde also plays one of the other wives, perpetually armed with a cocktail and sharply penciled side-eye. There's a hint of The Stepford Wives about them, and you'll probably also find yourself thinking of any number of midcentury melodramas and domestic chillers that stab at the suburban fantasy, from Rosemary's Baby to Blue Velvet to Get Out.  

So yeah, obviously you know there's a twist coming. I can't get through a short TV episode of Black Mirror or Devs or Tales From the Loop without impatiently wishing someone would just tell me the twist so I can go do something more interesting. It's a real feat to spin a yarn that keeps the viewer engrossed for a whole movie. Don't Worry Darling largely pulls it off: As John Powell's unnerving score meshes with classic 1950s pop cuts soundtracking the deliciously stylish oddness, I found myself half-hoping for no explanation at all. There's only a limited choice of endings for these kind of stories and an over-literal solution rarely lives up to the vibe.

Florence Pugh and Harry Styles in Don't Worry Darling.

Florence Pugh and Harry Styles in Don't Worry Darling.

Warner Bros

As the film premiered at film festivals in recent weeks, the bizarre happenings on screen have been matched by extraordinary events among the film's director and stars. It isn't worth rehashing the drama, but it's grimly ironic that the off-screen drama has boosted a film which could easily have sunk without trace. Don't Worry Darling is a medium-sized movie, and an original story -- the sort of thing you don't see so much in theaters any more. Even with huge stars aboard, Don't Worry Darling could easily have been one of those streaming flicks everyone talks about for two years and gets excited about the trailer and then one day you wonder, hey, whatever happened to that movie, and realize it came out on Netflix Prime Video Hulu Plus three months ago.

But don't relish the messy gossip too much. The frenzied media circus threatens to overshadow the artistic merit of a film directed by a woman, to an extent that's barely conceivable for male filmmakers. Still, even if you haven't been following the spit and spats, it's simply impossible to go into Don't Worry Darling with no preconceived notions. You're not meant to. Styles is the hottest pop star in the world, Pugh the hottest movie star. The sizzling pairing of personas is the whole point.

At least it should be. Pugh proves her talent with an almost casual effortlessness, embodying a theater-filling anguish while leaving a lingering impression she still has more left in the tank. Pugh delivers a commanding, often mesmeric performance that anchors the film at even its weakest moments.

And Harry Styles is also there.

If we're being charitable, this is one of those blessed occasions when a performer's limitations kinda suit the character. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who can't convince anyone he's a human person but is perfect as an inarticulate barbarian or stiffened robot. In Don't Worry Darling, Styles' pomaded husband is a fantasy figure, so it's OK that he struggles to inject any emotion into his lines. He's less a performer and more of a prop -- another piece of the glossy furniture filling the set, like a stylish rug or lamp: beautiful, blank and perpetually fading into the background.

At some point during the film, I thought of Matt Smith's turn in Last Night in Soho. Like Don't Worry Darling, Last Night in Soho is an ambiguously fantastical drama about a woman trapped by in a whirlwind of retro glamor and male violence. Smith played the silver-tongued, precisely tailored seducer, embodying a seething mix of sexuality, freedom, jealousy and menace. Here, Chris Pine supplies all those things, because Style sure doesn't.

Giving Styles the benefit of the doubt, casting such a magnetic onstage performer and gloriously playful wearer of clothes subverts the retro manliness of Pine, of Jon Hamm in Mad Men, of Sean Connery's James Bond (glimpsed on a poster in the film). One scene, which plays to Styles' performative strengths as it puts him squarely in the spotlight, offers a whiff of critique for the way he's made to caper before us. Which is just one of the many ideas sloshing around Don't Worry Darling like ice cubes spilling from a cocktail glass.

These ideas may not be particularly subtle or original, but at least there's something going on beneath the sharkskin suits and pinup dresses. Whether the film makes sense of these themes is another question, but the whole thing turns out to be rooted in seethingly timely anger.

So the music, the clothes and at least one of the stars are worth your time. While it's far from the sum of its parts, Don't Worry Darling is a perfectly entertaining B-movie.