There may be no greater sin in film than setting up a great mystery only to provide an unsatisfactory solution. Who didn’t feel crushing disappointment at the end of Shutter Island? Or how about Cabin in the Woods? Unfortunately for Don’t Worry Darling, a film is only as good as its ending. The film does a pretty good job of building a mystery but the completed puzzle falls far short of its individual pieces.
The mystery involves a creepy 1950s company town isolated in the middle of a desert. The men all work for a company with a secretive mission while the women spend the days doing housework, shopping at the company store, and taking ballet lessons. What do the men do all day? Their work, the “Victory Project,” at first seems to be some sort of Manhattan Project as they cannot talk about it and strange earthquakes provide the only hint as to what they do. But then we meet their boss (Chris Pine), who speaks the language of a cult leader. The film provides a great setup for an interesting twist because there are so many pieces that don’t fit together. It seems that whatever this cultish company does, it must be interesting.
Don’t Worry Darling ends up being nothing more than a collision between The Stepford Wives and The Matrix. This is unsatisfying because it appears to be The Stepford Wives throughout and there’s no hint that The Matrix turn is even plausible in this world, making it one of the worst dei ex machima ever put on film. The worst kinds of twists are the ones where a film breaks from its own rules. No one likes a film where it turns out that it was all just a dream, and Don’t Worry Darling all but goes for this cheap trick.
Don’t Worry Darling does such an excellent job leading us to its disastrous ending that it makes the disastrous ending that much more bitter. Florence Pugh delivers a strong performance and the 1950s suburban company town she, her husband, and other strangely ordinary people inhabit provides some genuine intrigue. But part of this intrigue is our assumption, as an audience, that the filmmakers have enough awareness not to be wholly derivative. There has to be some unique hook, right? If they’re working so hard to make us think we’re watching The Stepford Wives, it must be because it’s something else, right?
It’s clear the filmmakers thought their twist added something different to the original Stepford tale, but making it take place in The Matrix just mocks the audience. It reminds me of a nerdy patent joke, where you can patent any old idea by just adding the words, “on the internet.” Virtual reality has currently captured the imagination of the public with the wide availability (if not adoption) of VR headsets. But sticking a story in virtual reality doesn’t make it a different story. If the kid in the Sixth Sense sees virtual reality ghosts instead of real ghosts, it’s still the same premise.
Even before the big reveal the script collapses under its own weight. As our protagonist begins to unravel the mystery, she proves to be a frustratingly inept detective. The men gaslight her to keep her under control, and at one point she becomes aware of this and tries to turn the table on her adversaries. Taking the head of the table from her husband to face the cult leader directly for a confrontation during a dinner party, it seems that she’s finally ready to match wits with the men who imprison her. Then they just gaslight her some more and, though she should have expected it, she blusters and loses her composure. As our cult leader leaves, he tells her that he had much higher expectations for her challenge. He took the words right out of my mouth.
So what are we left with in Don’t Worry Darling? It’s a film that criticizes the treatment of women in the mid-twentieth century. In an attempt to be somewhat aware of how unoriginal this is, the film attempts to criticize modern men who wish the family unit resembled a 1950s suburb. But that doesn’t have much bite, does it? That’s not exactly a common position that men publicly advocate for. And for the pathetic incel communities and Proud Boys who do advocate these positions, their views are so transparently abhorrent that counterpoints are too obvious to support a film. Works like The Handmaids Tale succeed because they force us to consider the consequences of when these ideas achieve political power. Margaret Atwood terrifies readers by presenting an extreme situation that is frighteningly plausible. Don’t Worry Darling, on the other hand, has the plausibility of a Saw movie. As satire, the original Stepford Wives worked because it was relevant for its time. It criticized society as it was. Don’t Worry Darling attempts to modernize this criticism by also criticizing what may be the fantasies of some deprived misogynists. It criticizes men who are upset that their surgeon wives work too much. Do these men even exist? I suspect that some do, but it seems like such a rare occurrence that painting it as a broad social quagmire is disingenuous.