Styles’ appeal at least fits the premise of “Don’t Worry Darling,” in which a select group of forward-thinking families has moved to a planned Palm Springs community to create their own society in the mid-1950s. “It’s a different way. A better way,” Gemma Chan’s glamorous Shelley assures her guests at one of the movie’s many soirees. Her husband is the town’s founder, Frank, and he’s played with the devious purr of a self-satisfied cult leader by Chris Pine.
Every day is the same, and that’s meant to be the allure. The men leave for work in the morning, lunchboxes in hand, on the way to top-secret jobs at the Victory Project, which they can’t discuss with their wives. The wives, meanwhile, send them off with a kiss before embarking on a day of vacuuming and bathtub scrubbing, then perhaps a dance class, and definitely some day drinking. Wilde herself plays Alice’s next-door neighbor and best friend, Bunny, with cat-eye makeup and a conspiratorial grin. She brings some enjoyable swagger and humor to this increasingly creepy world.
But little by little, Alice begins to question her reality. Her anxiety evolves from jittery paranoia to legitimate terror the more she discovers about this place, and Pugh makes it all palpable. Images come to her in impressionistic wisps and nightmares that startle her awake in the dark. In time, Wilde relies too heavily on these visuals: black-and-white clips of Busby Berkeley-style dancers, or close-ups of eyeballs. They grow repetitive and wearying rather than disturbing. The heavy-handed score from John Powell becomes more insistent and plodding, telling us how to feel at every turn. Whatever you’re thinking might be at play here, it’s probably more imaginative than what it turns out to be.
Once Alice finds the courage to confront Frank about her suspicions, though, it results in the film’s most powerful scene. Pugh and Pine verbally circle and jab at each other. Their chemistry crackles. Each is the other’s equal in terms of precision and technique. Finally, there’s real tension. More of this, please.
What’s ironic is that Frank and Shelley’s mantra for their worshipful citizens is one of control: the importance of keeping chaos at bay, of maintaining symmetry and unity, of living and working as one. But as “Don’t Worry Darling” reaches its climactic and unintentionally hilarious conclusion, Wilde loses her grasp on the material. The pacing is a little erratic throughout, but she rushes to uncover the ultimate mystery with a massive exposition dump that’s both dizzying and perplexing.