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Florence Pugh as Alice in Don’t Worry Darling, looking disturbed in close-up, with her hands pressed against glass Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

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Don’t Worry Darling, it’s exactly what you think

Olivia Wilde’s glossy thriller sports Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, but it’s undone by unsubtlety

Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

During the infamous Venice film festival press conference for Don’t Worry Darling, pop dreamboat and aspirant actor Harry Styles described his new star vehicle thus: “My favorite thing about the movie is, like, it feels like a... like a movie. It feels like a real, you know, go-to-the-theater film movie.” A clip of his co-star Chris Pine appearing to lose his grip on reality while Styles said these words went viral, and — not for the first, or last, time in Don’t Worry Darling’s cursed press tour — Styles found himself the butt of the internet’s jokes.

The thing is, having now seen the film, I know what Harry was saying. Don’t Worry Darling, directed by Olivia Wilde and also starring Florence Pugh, really is a go-to-the-theater film movie. It’s full of hot famous people wearing immaculate clothes. It looks sleek and sounds loud and enveloping. It’s got a little bit of sex, a little bit of mystery, and a little bit of action. It takes a big swing at a big, dumb idea, aiming to smack it all the way up into the cheap seats. It’s not very clever and not wholly successful, but it is the kind of bold, brassy, high-concept studio thriller we don’t get so often these days. (At least, I think that’s what Harry was trying to say.)

In that context, the cyclone of gossip that has preceded its release feels like part of the experience, or at least consistent with it: a decadent, glossy tableau of turn-of-the-millennium celebrity culture. But happily, we can leave all mention of the scandal there. If there were troubles on set or discord among the cast, it doesn’t show in the finished product, which is slick, and conspicuously well made — if not well thought out.

Florence Pugh as Alice and Harry Styles as Jack smile at a sunny garden party, surrounded by other characters, in Don’t Worry Darling. Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Don’t Worry Darling is set in a 1950s corporate idyll. Alice (Pugh) and Jack (Styles) are a besotted young couple living in a modular, midcentury suburban paradise shaded by tall palm trees. All the women here are homemakers, and all the men work at a mysterious facility out in the desert called the Victory Project. What they do there is a closely guarded secret; the project’s leader is a charismatic devil called Frank (Pine), a cultish figure who speaks only in bland, nonspecific aphorisms about their common cause and utopian lifestyle.

Alice glides through this existence in a contented haze, enjoying Jack’s attentions at home, sipping drinks with her sardonic neighbor Bunny (Wilde), and practicing ballet with the other women under the cool gaze of Frank’s wife, Shelley (Gemma Chan). But she can’t help noticing cracks in the facade of this perfect world — a disturbed wife in the house next door, an empty eggshell, a plane falling out of the sky. She’s drawn to these imperfections, but nobody else seems to notice; her own attention slips, and her reality starts to fracture.

There doesn’t seem to be much linking this glamorous, hyper-real, rather sour psychological thriller with Wilde’s previous film, the likable and conscientiously sweet teen comedy Booksmart. But behind both films you can sense a director with strong, propulsive, crowd-pleasing instincts, who likes to go big and doesn’t have much time for shades of gray. That’s no kind of dis — it’s an all-too-rare pleasure to see a female director working in this populist register, with considerable studio resources behind her. (Gina Prince-Bythewood’s muscular The Woman King, also in theaters, hopefully makes it a trend.)

Florence Pugh as Alice scrubs a green bathtub in a pretty 50s dress. Her back is to us and we see her reflection refracted in a series of mirrors Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

But Wilde’s willingness to go for the audience’s jugular served her better with a ribald comedy than it does in a film working in an ambiguous, mystery-box mode. Right from the start, she loads the film with extremely pointed visual metaphors. Some of these are original and striking: Pugh getting pressed back by the plate glass windows of her perfect home, or suffocating herself with plastic wrap. Some are cliched and painfully on the nose: those empty eggs, a repeating Groundhog Day motif of sizzling bacon and coffee being poured, a Marilyn Monroe lookalike cavorting in a giant cocktail glass. None of them are subtle. Wilde starts deconstructing the world of Victory before she’s finished building it, and she does it armed with a Hitchcock box set taped to a sledgehammer.

There’s no room for surprise or nuance as Alice circles closer to the truth of what’s happening to the wives of Victory. Nothing is as it seems, and yet, to an even mildly movie-literate audience, everything is exactly as it appears to be. Even if you don’t guess the exact nature of the Shyamalan-esque turn in the narrative, you’ll know its contours, and sense where it’s headed, long before it arrives.

Maybe there’s a forthright honesty to this — even a justified anger. After all, if you’re asking what keeps women bound to an unfulfilling fantasy of becalmed domesticity, what force constrains their personhood, then it’s really no mystery at all. Perhaps to pretend otherwise for the sake of a satisfying twist would be its own form of gaslighting. But if that’s the case, then a high-concept mystery thriller was surely the wrong medium for the message.

Florence Pugh as Alice runs down a desert road toward the sun, turning to look over her shoulder in Don’t Worry Darling. She’s wearing a black dress and carrying a handbag Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

So it proves. The film’s final act dissolves into a mess of illogic, irresolution, and half-formed ideas. The filmmakers pull back the curtain and point the finger, but can’t quite manage — or can’t quite be bothered — to explain themselves and to work out the consequences. (Wilde hired her Booksmart collaborator Katie Silberman to rework an original script by Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke; Don’t Worry Darling has all the hallmarks of being overdeveloped.)

Oddly enough, the actor who’s stranded by the film’s collapse is not Pugh, but Styles. He’s not the disaster some gleefully predicted. He has no edge to speak of, but he looks very dashing, and his boyish artlessness works better with the film’s themes than you might think; in Victory, the women aren’t the only ones being manipulated. But as the plot unspools, he deflates pathetically; under the Harry Styles of it all, there’s nothing left.

It would be impossible to do that to Pugh. Alice may be just as much of a cipher on the page, but on screen, Pugh’s rooted physicality and radiant, mischievous, stubborn sense of life are realer than real. She will not be denied, and she powers Don’t Worry Darling over the finish line through sheer force of will.

Pugh’s performance is enough of a recommendation to see this shiny, smoothly finished movie-that-feels-like-a-movie. The production design, costuming, and cinematography are ravishing, and wielded with precision. Musically, it’s even richer and a little edgier, pitting crooning doo-wop and civilized jazz against John Powell’s unsettling, nervy score. In the space between these luxurious images and discordant sounds, you can feel a door opening to a thornier, more provocative film. But Wilde, anxious to make sure everyone gets the point, has nailed it shut.

Don’t Worry Darling opens in theaters on Sept. 23.