If the unending messiness of Don’t Worry Darling promotional tour has left you with a dozen (understandably) haunting questions — At what point did director Olivia Wilde fire Shia LaBoeuf? Did Harry Styles spit on Chris Pine in Venice? — and you were hoping for neater resolutions within the movie itself, you’re out of luck. The film, a mashup of The Stepford Wives (1975), The Truman Show (1998) and The Matrix (1999), relies on vivid imagery that it never explains, character motivations it can’t justify and motifs that just don’t cohere in the larger scheme of things.
Spoilers for Don’t Worry Darling follow:
By the end of the film, it’s revealed that Alice (Florence Pugh), a doting housewife living in the Fifties town of Victory, is actually part of a simulation. In the real (modern) world, her boyfriend Jack (Harry Styles), frustrated by her long work hours and heavily influenced by redpill podcasts, has abducted and trapped her in this virtual reality. While the men in Victory enter and exit at will, their wives are bound to the game, subservient to their husbands. They have no memory of their lives before and no way of knowing their existence is an illusion. Alice breaks free by the end, but not without leaving the audience with a whole bunch of unanswered questions. Here’s everything you’re probably still worrying about:
One of the first signs that not all is right in the tastefully curated, well-manicured suburbia of Victory appear via the eggs Alice cooks for breakfast every day. Early in the film, she picks one up from the carton as usual, but then pauses to weigh it in the palm of her hand, her expression suggesting a wary unfamiliarity. When she squeezes harder, it crumbles to dust, hollow inside. Is this a glitch in the code? One theory suggests that if the eggs are taken as a symbol of fertility, their hollowness foreshadows how none of the children in Victory are real but simply programmed simulations, but this feels like a too-nuanced explanation for a film that far too often resorts to bluntness.
The illusion of Alice’s perfect home life gradually begins to crumble in other frightening ways — the walls close in on her, a reflection in her bathroom mirror moves independently — and while these scenes heighten her terror (and by extension, her desire to find out more) and nudge at the audience’s interest, there’s no real explanation for why they occur in the first place. The film frequently confuses arresting imagery for narrative sustenance, the cinematic equivalent of: No thoughts, just vibes.
The one plausible theory regarding this is that Jack and Alice’s real-world apartment is close to a railway line, rattling when a train passes by and simulating the same reverberating effects in the game, but this doesn’t explain why everybody feels them.
Alice’s first disorienting brushes with the simulated nature of her reality involve her seeing a red plane streak through Victory skies and then crash in the desert, though no wreckage is found when she attempts to investigate. It’s hinted that fellow Victory resident Margaret (Kiki Layne) began her spiral into paranoia and frenzied panic after she too saw something in the desert, wandered out there with her child and lost him. It’s never explained if what she saw was also a plane, but via cross-cutting, the film connects her son’s toy plane with the one that Alice sees crash.
Is the plane meant to symbolise freedom and escape, driving Victory women mad with the taunt of a freedom they’ll never experience? Is it, more literally, another glitch in the code? (Sidenote: if the children in the town are programmed simulations and not real, why can’t Victory founder Frank simply code a new child for Margaret to quieten her suspicions and restore the status quo?)
Earlier this year, Wilde touted Don’t Worry Darling as a film about “female pleasure”. “Men don’t come in this film,” she told Variety. “Only women here!” To which the Indian censors snorted and got out their scissors. Even with their snip-snipping, it’s easy to decipher what’s happening in the film’s many sexual encounters between Jack and Alice — he goes down on her on their kitchen table, he fingers her in another. The film uses lust as the cinematic shorthand for love, depicting their relationship as a heady whirl of hormones. So far, so sexy until the film’s twist reveals that none of these actions could’ve been performed with Alice’s informed consent — in the real world, she’s drugged and strapped to a bed — which doesn’t make this a film about female pleasure so much as female rape. To frame it as anything else is a disingenuous marketing strategy at best, a staggering misreading of one’s own film at worst.
Don’t Worry Darling is so enamoured by aesthetic over narrative coherence that it unwittingly falls into the same narrow worldview that it rails against, fixated on immaculately dressed women without much interiority or sense of purpose. One of these is Margaret, a Black woman with only a few speaking lines whose sole role is to propel the White protagonist’s narrative. (Kiki Layne posted on Instagram that most of her scenes were cut from the film, which explains the gaps in narrative cohesion and adds another footnote to the behind-the-scenes production drama.)
Another is Shelley (Gemma Chan), a serene, soft-spoken presence who instructs the rest of the Victory wives in the art of ballet and dutifully supports her husband, Frank (Chris Pine). Flashes of fire come to the fore when Alice comes close to uncovering Frank’s machinations and Shelley lashes out at her for being ungrateful for the world he’s created for them. Towards the end of the film, when Alice is on the brink of escaping the simulation, Shelley stabs a stricken Frank in the stomach and whispers, “You stupid, stupid man. It’s my turn now.”
Viewers could not have seen this coming and that’s less a comment on the effectiveness of the twist and more a pointed jab at a flimsy character that has been afforded such little development, it’s hard to discern what could even be motivating her in the first place. Was she, like Bunny, aware of the simulation the whole time? Did she enjoy playing the doting housewife until she didn’t, coming to the realisation that she’d be a better leader than Frank? Shelley might represent internalised misogyny but in refusing to grant her the space to articulate herself, the movie becomes a far more effective symbol of that.
Any film that throws in a last-minute “if you die in the simulation, you die in the real world” caveat to up the stakes is worthy of scorn, but Don’t Worry Darling goes against its own internal logic only moments after introducing it. By the end, Alice kills Jack in the game and passes out, waking only when Bunny (Wilde) discovers what has happened. She tells Alice that this has killed Jack in the real world and then cautions her to flee, warning her that Victory higher-ups will be coming for her sedated body. Why? Can’t they just kill her in-game to accomplish the same end? Why would a red-pill podcaster code a game for men in which men are more vulnerable to fatalities?
Not that letting Alice flee the simulation would be a cause for concern anyway — she’s strapped to a bed next to a dead body, unable to call for help or escape. The film cuts away abruptly before that realisation sinks in, wanting to end on a note of triumph but knowing it rings hollow.
Viewers aren’t told how long Jack has kept Alice sedated and bound but surely her absence from her job — she has a vital caregiving role as a surgeon — and lack of contact with her friends and family has had to have raised some red flags? The original script, by Carey and Shane Van Dyke, explains that the men who abduct and force partners into the simulation fake their deaths in the real world to continue unobstructed. It’s a stretch, sure, but Don’t Worry Darling doesn’t even try reaching.
Or any accent? Despite the ostensibly American setting of Palm Springs, the singer retains his natural British accent for most of the film, eventually explained as his character choosing a British in-game persona (possibly to appear more sophisticated?). It’s a bit of narrative exposition that feels retrofitted to explain away the actor’s inability to perform a consistent American accent, especially since his cut-glass manner of speaking is an anomaly among the rest of his character’s American coworkers.
Far be it from me, Dunkirk (2017) enthusiast, to cast doubt on Styles’ acting abilities, but can he do an accent? As further evidence to support my doubt, I submit My Policeman, in which the actor plays a cop from the Southern part of London. When he’s first introduced, he mentions, however, that he’s just been transferred there from the North. Is it a necessary bit of information? No. Would it explain the lack of Southern accent? Yes. You may collect your tinfoil hats on the way out.