[This post contains major spoilers for Don’t Worry Darling.]
Don’t Worry Darling is a psychological horror film with feminist sensibilities. I like movies that have something to say, and this one, although not without flaws, gave me a lot to think about.
The movie’s main character, Alice (Florence Pugh), is one of a circle of housewives who live with their husbands in the idyllic 1950s-esque town of Victory, which looks like a suburban oasis planted in the middle of a barren desert.
The men leave each day to go to work at the Victory Project, a secret research center whose purpose they’re not allowed to discuss. Their wives pass the days cleaning their houses, cooking, shopping, drinking, swimming, lounging by the pool, drinking some more, and taking dance lessons. When their husbands return, the nights are a parade of boozy dinners, fabulous parties and enthusiastic sex. Alice’s husband, Jack (Harry Styles, handsome but forgettable), is a rising star in Victory who’s madly devoted to her.
Life in Victory is a fifties vision of utopia, except without the racial segregation and some of the other regressive attitudes of the era. The women are given everything they could possibly want. However, as time goes by, Alice notices that something isn’t right in Victory.
Most of her anxieties center around her husband’s boss Frank (Chris Pine, doing a sleazy Jordan Peterson impression), the head of the Victory Project, who likes to give vague yet triumphant speeches about what they’re accomplishing. All the other men in town have a cultlike devotion to him.
As Alice probes deeper, she discovers that her friends all have unnervingly similar stories about when and where they met their husbands and how they came to be there. And, especially, there’s one ironclad rule: the women must never attempt to leave the town.
Worst of all, there’s one of Alice’s friends, Margaret (Kiki Layne, who doesn’t get enough screen time). She’s the only one who doesn’t fit in. She broke the town’s one rule, and now she’s having paranoid delusions, mood swings and public breakdowns. She insists she saw something wrong in the desert…
As I said earlier, I like movies that have something to say. The best horror movies work as social commentary and not just scares for the sake of scares (see also: Get Out).
Don’t Worry Darling skewers the traditional vision of patriarchy, which many religious traditionalists and alt-rightists dream of returning to. It paints the past not as a utopia, but a gilded cage in which women were trapped. It argues that no material comfort is worth one’s freedom and self-determination. And it pulls no punches about the evil of modern “incels” and others who dream of bringing back that era of subjugation.
The twist is that the story takes place in the modern era. Victory is a virtual-reality simulation in which cult leader Frank and his followers have imprisoned their wives and girlfriends, drugging and brainwashing them to make them forget their former lives.
It’s their attempt to recreate a mythical golden era when men reigned over contented, compliant housewives. The men aren’t doing secret research; they just have to exit the simulation each day to work at real-world jobs to earn the money that keeps the Victory Project running.
This is fine as far as it goes, but it leaves some earlier plot threads dangling. For example, early in the movie, we see Victory shake in a tremor like a subway passing underground. This is never explained.
There’s also the incident that causes Alice’s reality to start unraveling: she sees a plane crash in the desert, and goes to see if anyone needs help, forcing her to break the prohibition on leaving town. Why was there a plane crash in a simulation? This is also never explained.
It’s either a glitch in the matrix or—a better suggestion—her own subconscious prompting her to look at something that isn’t right. Either way, the movie never returns to it.
My biggest critique
Since, in reality, the men of Victory aren’t working at secret government jobs they can never discuss, why lie about that? What purpose does this pretense serve? It seems likely to drive a wedge between the women and their husbands—which is what happens to Alice and Jack. It would make more sense to say the men are working at mundane jobs where long absences are normal, like traveling salesmen.
The other half of this critique is the location called Headquarters. Supposedly, it’s the center of the Victory Project, but actually it’s the exit portal from the simulation. It’s a creepy domed structure covered with mirrors, squatting on top of a hill in the desert like an omniscient eye. The rule against leaving the town is so the women don’t stumble across it and escape their false reality.
This is what I call the “Garden of Eden” problem. In that biblical myth, God puts the first humans in a paradise where they can do anything they please—except for one thing that’s forbidden. And, apparently, God expects them to obey this rule forever and never feel tempted to do that one thing. For an all-knowing deity, this shows an impressively poor grasp of human psychology.
If you want to make people notice something, the best way to do it is to tell them to stay away or else! Nothing is better at exciting curiosity than a taboo. The way to hide something isn’t to put up giant glowing “KEEP OUT” signs, but to make it boring, not worth asking questions about.
Also, if God didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge, why put it there at all? Or, at least, why not put a wall around it?
The movie has this same issue. Headquarters stands by itself, unguarded, wide open to anyone who happens to wander up. There isn’t so much as a barbed-wire fence. We see in the climax that Frank can summon an army of anonymous thugs in red jumpsuits—presumably NPCs in the simulation—to enforce his will, but none of these guards are present to turn away the curious.
These plot holes didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the movie. All I’m saying is that, if I were an all-powerful celestial dictator or a creepy cult leader with a virtual universe at his disposal, I could come up with better ways to keep my prisoners contented and not give them the desire to escape. You can almost see the story (either story) as an allegory: More tyrants see their schemes come crashing down because they can’t conceive of human beings resisting the perfect little worlds they created.