To argue Don’t Worry Darling goes off the rails in its third act is to insult the (pretty, sun-baked) chaos that comes before it. That “chaos,” after all, could easily be in reference to the publicity coaster the Olivia Wilde-directed film has traversed since rumors first festered of a feud between Wilde and star Florence Pugh—however the term is maybe even higher applied to the alternatives of the film itself. For all of the noise around Darling, the ultimate product is neither a whole disaster nor the astute masterpiece it so yearns to be. As a substitute, Darling’s biggest error is a creeping rot that stems forward and backward from its much-hyped plot twist.
Wilde’s sophomore directorial project stars Pugh because the inoffensively charismatic Alice, wife to Harry Styles’ Jack, with whom she lives within the Fifties-inspired Victory, where the warmth of the California desert shimmers off the concrete of a cookie-cutter suburbia. They share a picturesque midcentury home that Alice lovingly vacuums, sweeps, and polishes while Jack is away for unexplained business; his work for the so-called Victory Project is strictly confidential. He and the opposite men of Victory can’t tell their wives a thing about those strange noises in the gap, or the bizarre earthquakes that rattle the neighborhood at random intervals. The audience is supposed to imagine Jack and his cohort are working on something akin to the Manhattan Project. Their actual business is so rather more disappointing.
Darling never makes any effort to hide its central conceit: that something could be very, very improper in Victory. Marketing materials, including teaser trailers, embraced the Stepford Wives comparisons, and the film itself is similarly quick to announce Alice’s misgivings about Victory’s secrets. Despite her seemingly glad marriage and gaggle of neighbor girlfriends, she will be able to’t shake an eerie sense of foreboding, which intensifies when one other one in every of the wives, Margaret (an egregiously underused and mistreated Kiki Layne), shows signs of mental collapse. When Margaret eventually commits suicide—with Alice in full view—Alice’s own sense of reality slides off-kilter. Previously content to wash pans and roast chickens, she’s now bombarded with cracks in Victory’s veneer: She watches a plane crash in the gap as she rides a trolley to run errands. At home, she crushes empty eggshells and seals her own face in plastic wrap. The glass partitions of her gleaming little house squeeze inward to crunch her delicate cheekbones.
What Darling does well—no less than initially—is jack up this tension over time, through breathy sound effects and alarming splashes of color, juxtaposing old-school touchstones like martini glasses and tap-dancing with the modernity of Pugh’s high-velocity performance. Chris Pine, as Victory’s unflappable cultish leader, does a similarly intelligent job of setting the film’s stakes so as. We clench our fists like good little fans when Pugh’s screams pierce the air. But an audience can only hold their breaths for therefore long and never expect a) a solution to the mystery of “what’s really occurring here?” and b) a payoff for enduring the disquiet of that mystery in the primary place. Darling made it clear before it was even released that a subversive plot twist was on the horizon. Months of this hype, and in some way we’re left with…this?
What’s the Don’t Worry Darling plot twist?
Here’s where we go deep into spoiler territory, so if you happen to’re yet to see the film, turn back now before things get dangerous.
As Darling progresses, Alice’s increasingly frantic attempts to know Victory’s true purpose culminate in a simmering showdown between her and Pine’s character, Frank. At what needs to be a celebratory feast for Jack’s recent promotion, Alice accuses Frank of leading the people of Victory along, making selections for them without their prior consent. He, roughly, admits to this, though his magnetism holds Alice’s neighbors—and her husband—under his sway. Jack is furious with Alice’s outburst, but after she pleads with him, he guarantees to go away town together with her as a way to save their relationship.
Alas, it’s a lie. After Alice packs up the automotive and slips into the passenger seat for his or her midnight getaway, suited men swarm the vehicle, dragging Alice out while Jack bellows his apologies and beats the steering wheel in frustration. It’s immediately clear just how complicit Jack is in Victory’s machinations, though those machinations remain unexplained just yet. It’s only when Alice earns a healthy dose of electroshock therapy that the blurry pieces finally zoom into focus.
After her brain is fried to a crisp, Alice awakens in what we eventually understand is a memory: She works in medicine, not in ironing linens, and is ending an extended shift on the hospital. Returning home to a rundown apartment, she encounters an unfamiliar version of Jack hovering amongst the cereal boxes, his clothes rumpled and his skin pale. He doesn’t like all these hours Alice is working, how she’s too drained even to have sex. When she goes to bed so she will be able to get up for her next early-bird shift, Jack retreats to his expansive computer set-up, where the voice of Frank wafts through his headphones, echoing the emotions of so many before him: This world just isn’t because it once was, nor correctly. Frank never comes right out and says he’s the leader of a band of incels or men’s rights activists, but that’s actually what Wilde seeks to imply, given the world Frank is promoting.
See, Frank’s the creator of a virtual reality often called the Victory Project, wherein a person can plug himself and a partner of his selecting (which seems, almost universally, to be a lady) right into a made-up Fifties-era suburbia where the ladies are sufficiently domesticated. The important thing here is that this plugging-in can apparently be done non-consensually, as is the case with Alice.
But her memories, for some reason that’s never sufficiently explained, are disrupting her experience of the VR. When in-simulation Alice returns, freshly electroshocked, to Victory, she confronts Jack about what he’s been hiding. Finally, he spills: He signed himself and Alice up for Victory; he leaves the simulation commonly to make enough money to maintain this system running (that’s the “work” he and the opposite husbands do daily); and he dragged Alice in with him because she was “miserable” working in the true world. Never mind that she loved her job, loved her life—as she shouts at Jack, it was hers. Their life, their relationship, was not as Jack wanted it to be, and so he forced a recent one upon them each.
What’s never explained is how he managed to get Alice into the simulation without her knowing (by drugging her, perhaps?); why he stays self-aware inside Victory while Alice doesn’t; and the way Alice (and, apparently, Margaret) began becoming suspicious enough to understand something was amiss.
How does Don’t Worry Darling end?
In a fit of shock and fury, Alice kills Jack—which apparently also kills him in the true world. (Who knows how or why?) She takes off toward the in-simulation Victory headquarters, where the husbands congregate daily to exit the VR and re-enter reality. As she races to succeed in the constructing atop a hill, armed guards try (and fail) to stop her ascent, even after she’s forced to desert her convertible and rough it on foot. Who’re these armed guards? No idea. Hired lackeys of Frank’s, it’s assumed, but how did they get into the simulation? Are they real, or a contrived a part of the VR, just like the houses and the pools and the palm trees? Are they self-aware? If that’s the case, what’s their motivation for keeping the ladies of Victory trapped? Darling doesn’t trouble to dig into any of that.
When Alice reaches the headquarters—as she did earlier within the film, though she was caught before she could escape—she stops, if only briefly. As she hovers on the precipice of freedom, an imagined version of her once-beloved husband curls his arms round her stomach, nuzzles his nose against her neck, and pleads for her not to go away him behind. This, I’m convinced, is one in every of the rare moments where the film does have something insightful and intelligent to say, if only it’d be willing to dig its heels in slightly deeper. Jack’s gentle coaxing and Alice’s hesitation—they each probe at how difficult it’s for a lady to flee an abusive relationship and a patriarchal system that perpetuates it. Especially when that system is cyclical. Especially when the connection is with someone you once thought you liked.
But, ultimately, Alice wrenches freed from Jack’s grasp and smashes the glass of Victory’s headquarters, apparently waking herself up. (Because the screen turns black, we hear a lady’s gasp, and it sounds loads like Pugh’s.) There’s, again, no explanation as to why breaking the glass of the headquarters releases you from Victory’s simulation, or what Alice will do when she awakens to Jack’s corpse in bed beside her. But even these are minor complaints in comparison with the laundry list of other questions that remain after the credits roll.
What are the issues with Don’t Worry Darling’s plot twist?
The more Darling’s climax is put under a magnifying glass, the more the remaining of its plot crumbles. If Victory’s men emerge from the VR daily, then what are the strange noises and earthquakes the ladies witness within the simulation? (Perhaps subway trains rattling outside their windows in the true world?) Why does Alice watch a plane crash within the desert, if all the things she sees in Victory is imagined to be Frank’s creation? On that note, how can she hallucinate when she’s already living in an imagined reality?
Let’s keep going. Those trippy visions—the crushing glass, the hallucination of Margaret in a dance-class mirror, the eggs without yolks in them—what triggered these instances? If you happen to die within the simulation, how exactly does that kill you in the true world? Why would Frank and co. decide to treat Alice with electroshock therapy, if that’s exactly what triggers the return of her real-life memories? Also, how does simulated electroshock therapy have an effect on her real, tangible brain?
But even when I could put these plot holes to bed, it wouldn’t change what is probably most vexing about Darling and its beleaguered plot twist: the query of whether Styles was miscast.
On one hand, Jack needed plausible deniability: to be charming enough for audiences to smile when he got here onscreen, and to doubt or dismiss any of his more heinous behaviors. But he also needed enough moody interiority to harbor a twisted secret, one born of desperation and the stink of inferiority. As much as Styles is a stunning—and, at times, deeply introspective—musical artist, that very same introspection has yet to translate well to the screen. I don’t buy Styles as anything near a red-pilled incel, even along with his normally luscious locks clumped and greasy. I’m undecided that’s enough evidence to write down off Styles as an actor entirely, however it actually doesn’t make a powerful case for why he was forged as Jack, the character Darling relied on to execute its biggest selling point: the plot twist. His sobs when Alice is dragged away are painful to look at, but I even have a sneaking suspicion my sympathies lie more with Styles in that scene than with Jack.
The twist—America’s sweetheart as an incel, forcing a lady right into a simulation of sex and domesticity—is an intriguing one, but neither Styles nor the script he’s working from have enough rope to execute it with. And so Darling never meets its own expectations for itself. Its supposedly prescient observations about sexism are already exhausted by the point real-world Jack trudges into the frame, his hoodie reeking of yesterday’s cologne.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers news and culture.