Warning: this article contains spoilers for the ending of “Don’t Worry Darling”.
In a recent conversation for magazine interviewOlivia Wilde asked Maggie Gyllenhaal if she knew what incels are.
Gyllenhaal said no, she doesn’t (honestly, we should all be so lucky). “They’re basically disenfranchised, mostly white men, who believe they have the right to have sex with women,” Wilde said. “Oh, okay,” Gyllenhaal replied. A truly amazing exchange.
Although simplistic, this is a fairly accurate one-line description of incels from Wilde. But after seeing “Don’t Worry Darling,” Wilde’s second feature as a director and the film that prompted this little back-and-forth, I’m quite worried, sweetie, how easily this movie understands the driving force behind this culture.
From its script to its direction, almost everything about “Don’t Worry Darling” leaves the viewer wanting. Its hypnotic cinematography and lush set design have the colossal task of hiding the fact that beneath that beautiful veneer there is nothing to see. Even a few good performances from Florence Pugh and Chris Pine can’t hide that what the film asks them to deliver is a slew of half-baked, muddled ideas about femininity, relationships, and toxic masculinity.
Alice (Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) live in the town of Victory, California, a sunny 1950s paradise. In Victory, the men go to work and the women keep the house – cleaning, cooking and ready at the door with a Manhattan in hand at 6 p.m. In their spare time, Alice and Jack drink, party, and have sex aplenty—or so we’re led to believe (“You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve heard,” Alice’s neighbor smiles, Bunny (Wilde). But when Alice’s friend Margaret (Kiki Layne) commits suicide and Alice herself begins to have visions she cannot explain, she begins to question the nature of her relationship with Jack as well as the very nature of Victory itself.
To unpack how the movie goes wrong, I’m going to dive into spoiler territory. If you haven’t seen “Don’t Worry Darling” and want to stay clean, come back now.
Through a series of flashbacks, we discover that before Alice and Jack arrived in Victory, they weren’t the picture of mid-century bliss that they seem to be. In fact, they weren’t in the 1950s at all. The film’s third act reveals that everything in Victory takes place in the present day.
But that’s not all. It turns out Victory isn’t a real city, but a simulation created by a man named Frank (Pine), described by Wilde as a Jordan Peterson figure who believes in true gender roles and returning men to their old glory. Fed up with Alice’s work schedule (she was a surgeon) and lack of libido, Jack – outfitted in glasses and a bad goatee, a far cry from the baby-faced sweetness of his 1950s counterpart – l fall asleep and strength in this bizarre metaverse in the hope that they can be happy together.
It’s pretty obvious from the start that the events of the film take place in the present. It’s a testament to the set design, its decor less reminiscent of the 1950s than how we 21st century folks might imagine that decade. Everything is a little too polished, a little too glamorous. But the revelation that this Palm Springs knockoff is the world an incel would create if they had the means is more disconcerting than unnerving, as is nearly all of the film’s visual language.
The visual cues deployed by Wilde are intended to cause concern, but to what end? Alice’s hallucinations often materialize as dancers straight out of a Busby Berkely musical – black and white, perfectly symmetrical, the picture of perfection. But beyond Frank’s wife, Shelley (Gemma Chan), none of the women give Stepford robotic excellence, and Jack doesn’t seem to care about Alice as a low-key housewife. The debauchery enjoyed by both men and women in Victory belies this grim imagery, leaving it empty.
Much fond of its visual language, Victory’s sexual politics don’t pan out if you think about it for more than a few seconds. During the “Don’t Worry Darling” press tour, Wilde proudly bragged that only female orgasm in this film. In their two love scenes, Jack and Alice do not have penetrative sex, and Jack never ends, with the camera focusing solely on Alice’s pleasure. Seeing female pleasure on screen might seem like a small victory, but it’s completely antithetical to everything we’re led to believe this movie wants to criticize. An incel’s particular brand of misogyny—one rooted in self-loathing, one that condones violence against sexually active women—is not something I think would translate into generosity in bed. Yet Jack is not at all interested in his own sexual pleasure. Wilde is right that incels have the right to have sex with women, but the idea that that right doesn’t include fellatio is laughable. If all someone wanted was a cocktail in the hand at 6 p.m. coupled with the ability to get down on his wife, things might be much simpler.
The actors do their best to make this baffling storyline work, but they’re bogged down by the limitations of the script. Pugh, who seems incapable of delivering a poor performance at this point, could achieve true movie star status, if only because she’s able to hold off a disappointing movie by sheer force of will. The few scenes that actually sizzle with something – anything – take place between her and Pine. He wears a confident, sleazy salesman and nice clothes, easily manipulating Pugh as rage and frustration seep through every pore of his body. Their moments crackle with a psychosexual tension that I wouldn’t mind watching for hours, and they have a lot more chemistry than Pugh does with his more frequent scene partner Styles.
There’s been a lot of ridicule online about Styles’ performance – much of it even before the film’s premiere – and while the rumors are true (he’s not good in the role), I almost feel bad that he was put in this position in the first place. Jack’s character isn’t particularly well-written or complex, but it’s the film’s role with the most layers, and Styles’ pristine look isn’t up to the challenge.
As Bunny, Alice’s friend and neighbor, Wilde ends up casting herself in the more interesting role, but doesn’t spend time unpacking her. It is revealed at the end of the film that Bunny voluntarily chose to live in this simulation. There’s a nugget of something complex there – how white women can be complicit in their own oppression and will choose their own comfort over action – but the moment has passed in a flash, and the film continues its series of tangled nonsense until its conclusion.
Long story short, maybe we should be a little worried. And maybe Maggie Gyllenhaal should do her own research on the subject.