Note: This story contains spoilers for the new film “Don’t Worry Darling.”
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In conversation with fellow actress-director Maggie Gyllenhaal for Interview magazine, Olivia Wilde asked, “You know the incels?” She was explaining to Gyllenhaal how she based a character in her latest film, “Don’t Worry Darling,” on Jordan Peterson, a professor-turned-proselytizer whom Wilde described as “this pseudointellectual hero to the incel community.”
Gyllenhaal responded with a concise, “No.” She did not know the incels. But after a single viewing of “Don’t Worry Darling” – an actual film released Friday, not just a vehicle for star-studded scandals – it would be hard to maintain this ignorance. Based on a story by Carey Van Dyke, Shane Van Dyke and screenwriter Katie Silberman, the thriller follows a 1950s housewife as she descends into what men around her decry as madness, despite it actually being a state of enlightenment. The dysfunction she becomes suspicious of in her once-perfect life is revealed to be the result of glitches in the virtual world she is trapped in.
That’s where the incels come in. The term – which stands for involuntarily celibate and refers to men, most of them White, who see themselves as disenfranchised and harbor dangerously sexist views of women – applies in the film to modern men who hook themselves and unwitting women in their lives up to machines that transport them to a 1950s suburban fantasy. The women are brainwashed into believing this is reality, while the men remain aware of its artificiality.
The big reveal, it turns out, is that some insecure men still cling to the misogyny of a bygone era.
“Don’t Worry Darling” doesn’t have much to say beyond that. A good portion of its roughly two-hour run time is spent exploring the candy-colored company town of Victory, Calif., tastefully captured by cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Boy, is it dreamy. In the morning, the women kiss their husbands goodbye as they drive off in unison to mysterious jobs at the Victory Project. Upon their return, the men are greeted with more kisses and elaborately prepared dinners.
The central depiction of domestic bliss is brought to us by actors Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, who play young married couple Alice and Jack Chambers. Alice begins each day by frying her husband two eggs alongside a few strips of bacon, a repeated act – and crime against cholesterol levels – that becomes more menacing as Alice begins to question everything around her.
What does Jack really do as a “technical engineer” helping develop “progressive materials” at the Victory Project, hmm? Cracks egg. Does Jack trust Frank (Chris Pine), the Peterson-esque head of the company who runs the town with his wife, Shelley (Gemma Chan)? Cue bacon sizzle.
The answer is that yes, Jack does. Trust might even be too light a word. In real life, he is a deeply unhappy man who cannot keep a job and, while his surgeon partner (also played by Pugh) toils away in an operating room, spends his days becoming radicalized by Frank’s videos preaching male dominance. At a recent screening of the film near Washington, the sight of Styles swapping his coifed 1950s ‘do for incel Jack’s greasy curtain of hair prompted disgusted squeals from the audience.
This hair-and-makeup decision, in stark contrast with the pop star’s usual look, seemed to elicit more emotion from viewers than any major plot development, or even the actual reveal itself – perhaps a signal of the lack of depth or novelty to the film’s central message. While Pugh excels at playing a gaslit woman, delivering a performance recalling elements of her breakout role in Ari Aster’s horror film “Midsommar,” her character’s arc is predictable from the outset.
So what of everyone else? The rest of the husbands turn out to be just as horrible and pathetic as Jack, no surprise there. The other wives are shaken up by the discovery of what is really going on – with the exception of Wilde’s character, Bunny, who tells Alice that she lost her children in real life and willingly lives in the fake world to spend time with recreations of them. (How unfortunate that this came out after “WandaVision,” which centers on a similar plot.)
After Alice kills Jack in an act of self-defense (which results in his actual body’s demise, too), Shelley, who up until this point seemed to know and be completely fine with what her husband was doing, takes advantage of the chaos and stabs Frank, ending his life as well. His death is meant to be cathartic, a win for all women who have been unfairly manipulated, but presents a missed storytelling opportunity. Were “Don’t Worry Darling” truly interested in interrogating the structures that perpetuate misogyny, it might have pondered the role of complicit women, like Shelley, who steadfastly betray their own.
It is only fitting that “Don’t Worry Darling” was released after a promotional tour inadvertently drawing attention to a web of alleged feuds between the director and her actors, whether over casting decisions or on-set behavior. One could argue that the rumors circling the tour, chock full of drama, reveal more about dysfunctional human relationships than the film itself.
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