It’s not surprising, in some ways, that Don’t Worry, Darling has received such middling reviews from critics. First, the events behind the scenes have clearly contaminated its reception, evoking a problematic working environment that seems to have compelled some critics to distance themselves from the film. Second, Don’t Worry, Darling is precisely the kind of film that can cause consternation and anxiety in critical quarters, since it cites so many other iconic films, creating a kind of a race to the bottom in which one critic after another labels it as derivative in order to prove that these citations haven’t escaped them. Finally, the fact that Olivia Wilde has identified Jordan Peterson as her inspiration has led to the film being review bombed across various online forums, while causing critics to again distance themselves from an allegory that can seem on the nose from a distance. On top of all those factors, there must be a residual anxiety about female auteurism at play here, since everything that has been deemed messy in Don’t Worry, Darling seemed to ramify as experimental in the reception of Nope, which is the closest recent release, in both spirit and ambition, to Wilde’s vision here.
Like Nope, Don’t Worry Darling reaches back to the golden age of science fiction, and the spectre of the flying saucer, to craft a thesis about our present world. In brief, Katie Silberman’s screenplay immerses us in Victory, an idealised suburban enclave that appears to be set in the 1950s, in which women perform domestic duties and men work on “progressive materials” all day. Wives aren’t permitted to know what they’re doing, nor to leave the Victory city limits, which are presided over by Frank, a Peterson-like figure played by Chris Pine, who founded the project. Frank assures everyone that they’re changing the world simply by living in Victory, although he’s more nebulous about exactly how this is happening, leading housewife Alice, played by Florence Pugh, to grow curious about her husband Jack, played by Harry Styles. Most of the film revolves around Alice, although Wilde, Nick Kroll, Gemma Chan, Kate Berlant, Kiki Layne and Nick Kroll fill out an ensemble cast of other wives and husbands.
Part of the originality of Don’t Worry Darling is that its aesthetic doesn’t really make sense until the final reveal, meaning it’s a film you need to discuss backwards, and a film that resonates in a completely different way the second time around. In the closing act, we learn that Alice and Jack were originally a normal couple, living in the normal world, until Jack became obsessed with Frank’s podcast. Like Peterson, Frank advocated a return to conventional gender roles, but unlike Peterson he had the technology to achieve it – an entire simulated suburban world, named Victory. Like the men who went before him, Jack saved up enough money, and tricked his wife into going to Frank’s place, where she was forcibly anaesthetised and plugged into the Victory mainframe. While Alice, like all the other women in Victory, remains there full-time, Frank leaves everyday to make enough money in the real world to support his virtual lifestyle. The mysterious work on “progressive materials” simply involves the men of Victory exiting the simulation in order to maintain their 1950s fantasia.
In other words, the key metaphor that drives Don’t Worry Darling is incels as aliens – a connection many incels would probably appreciate themselves, given that they define themselves as being perennially alienated from sex. As the head of this incel-alien community, Frank, with shades of Pine’s stint in Star Trek, not only conceives of Victory as an abduction event, but draws on the UFO abduction narrative as it stood mid-century in order to consolidate the 1950s period effect. Abductees from this time often described being trapped in a virtual space, which here corresponds to Frank’s simulation, where the abducted women of Victory are arranged and choreographed in a series of interlocking concentric circles that invoke the flying saucer in its classic formulation. The mysterious labour of men, in Victory, is nothing more nor less than maintaining this abduction, while their wives become agents of future abduction, without realising it, by welcoming each new woman into their community.
In this way, Wilde and Silberman suggest that the incel is nostalgic, above all, for a mid-century spatial scheme that encompassed both suburbia and UFO abduction. Both scenarios depend on time that can’t be accounted for, pockets of blank time that defy received knowledge. Just as the abductee can only speculate on the meaning of their time in the presence of UFOs, so the 1950s housewife can only speculate on the unknowable ideological labour her husband performs when he goes to work. Gender norms, in Wilde and Silberman’s vision of the incel, depend upon investing men with this opaque repository of time that, for the incel, has vanished so emphatically from the modern world that only the remoter temporality of the UFO abduction can restore it. Incels, in this model, have lost an automatic access to sex because they have lost this mystification of male time, so it makes sense that the mysterious labour of the men of Victory is precisely the maintenance of this temporal fantasy. By focusing on the dissolution of this spatial scheme in the present, Wilde aligns her vision with series like WandaVision, Severance and Kevin Can Go Screw Himself, all of which transpose this fantasmatic mid-century threshold between home and work into a minor key.
Conversely, Jack, Alice’s husband, is drawn to Victory by the complete absence of this mystified male professional time in his own life. The critical moment comes when Alice, a doctor in the real world, returns after a thirty-hour shift, too exhausted for either dinner or sex with Jack, who appears to work from home. Not only is the woman returning to the domestic male, but work has lost all its mystification, taking up so much space that it only produces exhaustion. Before he identifies as an incel, then, Jack is attached to the idea of being a provider, and yet the only way he can be a provider is in the virtual sphere, or by providing the virtual sphere itself, since he has to work for hours in the real world to maintain the Victory lifestyle. Once he’s done so, however, he can profess his love for Alice with confidence, much as the other Victory men revel in mansplaining now that their authority is (virtually) secured. Seeing them revolving around Frank is like witnessing the white cults of the 60s emerging from the suburbia of the 50s, since Victory is halfway between a new housing tract and an isolationist compound, two different iterations of the post-war planned community. If the UFO is one extremity of the mystified male time of the 50s, the cult leader is another – the ultimate husband, in a way, since his work is both critical to maintain the society that he founds, but also unknowable by definition, especially to his female devotees.
At stake in Don’t Worry Darling, then, is the incel project to restore patriarchal temporality – through a mid-century notion of work and provision, through the blank time of UFO abduction, and finally through the unquestionable work of the cult leader, since the final promise of Victory is to turn each man into a cult leader within his own house. However, this fusion of suburban, UFO and cult imagery produces a profoundly dissociative aesthetic that’s only really possible to parse when you understand the dimensions of the world, in the same way that certain kinds of incel behaviour as only comprehensible when you recognise them as such. The film’s consciousness of itself seems to emerge at the same moment of the women’s awareness of themselves, in the opening mise-en-scene, meaning the supposedly “derivative” elements of Wilde’s world correspond to the false memories implanted in the women. Hence the somewhat abrupt opening, which situates us amidst a group of these women as they dance, laugh and play at an evening party – fully-formed, to be sure, but still slightly awry from the birth pangs of becoming virtual at the very instant that the film begins.
The opening act that follows is perpetually off-kilter, from the hypercharged introductory scenes, where song after song piles onto the soundtrack, to the composition of individual shots, which frequently lack an overt point of focus. It’s as if the women of Victory are not quite fully-formed, forcing them to subsume the tropes of alien abduction into their regular suburban routines as they acclimatise to a world they’re barely aware of entering in the first place. For the most part, they’re successful, but the fantasy is always threatening to come apart at the connective tissue between these virtual spaces, forcing ruptures in the film’s own connective tissue as well, as strange lapses, abstractions and aporia rise to the surface to break the illusion of continuity, along with sudden shifts in the soundscape that seem to leave us suspended in mid-air. It’s quite nauseating and uncomfortable to watch at times, with everything a little too close, loud and hot, as if the film, or Alice want to pass out, but can’t. Later on, we’re able to recognise this desire more specifically – as Alice’s bodily desire to exit the simulation, and wake up from the virtual sleep that takes such a significant toll on her body, bad enough that Jack has to continually moisten her eyes and mouth in the real world.
Rather than proceeding in a linear fashion, then, the opening act of Don’t Worry Darling unfolds a as series of vortices, centrifugal nodes, points of convergence that recall the immense concentric formations of Heaven’s Gate, another film that was destined for a more favourable critical reception in the future. The film, and women, emerge, in the midst of one of these convergences – dancing in a circle, while balancing UFO-like plates on their heads – before Wilde shifts to a joyride in which they drive round and round in a circle in the connective tissue between the outskirts of Victory and the mountains where the men exit the simulation. From the outset, the continuum between real and virtual space is thus looped into these circular motifs, which continue as Wilde cuts to vertical shots of a boiled egg and coffee cups, and then into our broader immersion within Victory, as the husbands depart their perfectly curved cul-de-sac for work. No surprise, then, that the Victory headquarters, on a distant mountain, is a circular building, nor that Victory itself is designed in a circle, which Wilde replicates in her vertiginous circular pans that continually circumnavigate the women, who spend most of their leisure time in a ballet class, where they perform yet more circular motions, chanting: “There is beauty in control, there is grace in symmetry, we move as one.”
Since these circles mark the continuous integration of real into virtual worlds, the only point of escape is when the circle is resettling itself, which in Alice’s routine corresponds to the roundabout where the Victory trolley service turns around at the end of its route, on the outskirts of town. It’s here that the film’s incel-alien interface comes into its own, as Alice glimpses a plane crashing over the mountains that the bus driver not only pretends didn’t happen, but refuses to investigate with her when she heads into the desert. The most fundamental trope of a UFO encounter, an apparently subjective perception of an aerial craft, leads Alice across the desert, and into an intensification of the film’s circular schemes, as she curves round and round the edge of the distant mountain, arrives at the UFO-like Victory Headquarters on the top, places her face to the glass, and envisages a series of abstract circular motifs: blood pooling, an eye retracting, and a nightmarish fusion of Victory and Busby Berkeley, in which a circle of women raise and lower their legs in unsettling regularity. The incel-alien interface now seems to be baked into the fabric of film itself, as a lens flare appears, just before Alice touches the glass, that momentarily looks like an approaching UFO.
In other words, conceptualising the incel-alien interface is as difficult for Alice as it is for a character in a film to recognise that they are in a film. For incels, in Wilde’s vision, are ultimately nostalgic for the way that these gendered divisions in space and time played out through, and were cemented by, classical Hollywood as it stood mid-century. Jack, like the other men in Victory, wants to abduct women and return with them to this older cinematic temporality, which has its most distant origin, in sound cinema at least, in the elaborate geometric configurations of Busby Berkeley, which formalised the loftily distant male gazes that structures Victory too. Even as she encounters the incel-alien interface, Alice is unable to fully conceptualise it as an abduction event, just because she is already inside an abduction event. Expecting her to recognise what has happened is as unreasonable and unrealistic to expect 1950s Hollywood narrative to fully diagnose itself, since in both cases the victims are embedded in a model of mystified patriarchal space, the locus of work, UFO abduction, cult leadership and now the classical male gaze, that is itself the condition and source of horror.
This produces a remarkably diffuse and experimental second act, in which Alice’s moment at the incel-alien interface only embeds the motif of abduction more thoroughly into the Victory community. In the immediate aftermath, she wakes up suddenly, in bed, to find that an unspecified amount of time has elapsed, before emerging into the kitchen, in a reprise of the opening birth scene. Again, the imagery is a little too queasy, the sound is a little too abrasive, and the palette is a little too warm, signalling to the audience, in retrospect, that she has been removed and replugged into the Victory simulation in the interim. In the next scene, the following morning, she tries to remove a smudge from the living room window, only for this echo of the UFO-like lens flare that emerged on the cusp of the incel interface to transform her house itself into a topos of abduction, as the windows compress, trapping her up against the wall. Images like these are neither quite subjective or objective, but visualise the looping circle between reality and simulation, as the Victory system takes Alice’s memories of the real world, as well as her memories of the incel interface, and absorbs them into a new normality.
That strange cusp between subjective and objective experience percolates throughout the second act, rupturing the film’s sense of space in the process. Earlier on, one of the wives comments that their cul-de-sac is now closer to town, since a new ring of houses is being built behind them. When Alice questions her logic, she simply explains that they’re no longer the furthest from town, meaning they’re closer to town. That fusion of actual and perceptual location is the driving force of the second act too, where it tends to coincide around images of windows and mirrors, and the growing confusion between them. Following the scene where she’s squeezed in by her window, Alice returns to the ballet studio, where the mirrors suddenly become windows in turn, giving her a vision of another wife who mysteriously died. Finally, the second act culminates with Jack being admitted to the upper echelons of Victory, at a special awards night, as Alice flees in inchoate terror to a circular mirrored antechamber.
This moment brings us full circle, since it represents the point of maximal disorientation, the threshold before we find out the true meaning of Victory. As such, this is a kind of miniature conclusion within the film, in which the abduction motifs reach peak obliquity even as they’re elevated to a new fascist pitch as well. The vortical energy of the film climaxes now, as a burlesque dancer spins round and round in the effervescence of an enormous glass of champagne, before Jack follows with a dance of his own, and twists round and round too, in a maniacal motion that drives Alice to the antechamber, where her identity is fractured into an endless array of mirrored fragments that encircle and entrap her. The effect is not unlike the mirror maze in The Lady From Shanghai, as the entire visual syntax of the film, its ability to discern subjective from objective imagery, teeters, wavers, almost collapses, and then finally comes together again under a new fascist imperative. All of a sudden, the concentric circles resolve into a military-like formation, as Wilde draws on the end of Act 1 of Cabaret, replacing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” with the Victory slogan of “Today Victory, Tomorrow the World,” and Jack and the crowd chant over and over again: “Whose world is it?” “Ours!”
In a sense, this is the end of the film, as Wilde condenses the incel project, and the way it feels to women, into a remarkable phenomenological experience: an inchoate sense of circles tightening, concentric rings of control being put in place, and abduction embedded in the midst of nostalgic traditionalism, but without any clear sense of purpose beyond a looming fascist imperative. All that women can do, Wilde suggests, is to intuitively and inchoately abduct themselves back out, even if the outside seems as nebulous, unformed and provisional as the exterior worlds of WandaVision or Severance, both texts in which women make a leap of faith to re-engage with a putative exterior. Rather than resolve this process, however, or fully condense the incel-alien interface to a clear set of coordinates, the film ends precisely at that interface, as Alice puts her hands on the glass once again, the image blurs, and we’re suspended in the connective tissue between subjective and objective, real and virtual, cinema and life, challenging us, too, to negotiate our way out of inceldom through and within film.