Warner Bros. Entertainment
It wouldn’t take long for you to list a whole series of events that would convince you that something was seriously wrong with your world. Say, a giant dog materializes in your living room. You crack an egg, and it’s full of ketchup. Your spouse has not returned from a trip, but his suitcase is on your doorstep. Something, obviously, is wrong. What would probably take longer is to figure out what would explain these things and bring a satisfying resolution to a story about them. Where does the giant dog come from? What happened to the egg? Where the hell is your spouse? Creating a mystery is this two-step process: creating the question, then creating the answer.
The new movie don’t worry darling is a drama and a thriller, but it is also a mystery. We meet Alice (Florence Pugh), who lives in an idyllic mid-century-style neighborhood with her husband Jack (Harry Styles). This planned community is under the control of Jack’s boss, Frank (Chris Pine), who runs the mysterious Victory Project, which employs all the local men while their wives guard the house. Alice begins to see clues that suggest something is seriously wrong.
Some of them appear in the trailer: A roar rings overhead – perhaps as if there’s something military about the men’s work. A plane wobbles in the sky. An egg turns out to be nothing more than an empty shell that crumbles in Alice’s hand. A woman is standing on a roof in her nightgown. Alice finds herself crushed between the wall of her house and the window. She wraps plastic wrap around her own head. In film, all of these visuals are effective enough to create two of the most important elements of a mystery thriller: genuine curiosity and deep unease.
Finding a threat in the conformity of this imaginary suburb of the 1950s and 1960s is not new. (The neighborhood reminded me instantly Edward Scissorhands.) But director Olivia Wilde finds effective visual language, especially in the motorcade of classic cars that make an eerily synchronized exit from Alice and Jack’s cul-de-sac each morning. And the use of period music, although sometimes oppressive, works in this context. She also gets a powerful performance from Pugh, who is quickly becoming one of the most reliable movie actresses we have.
As Pugh’s Alice becomes increasingly annoyed with her surroundings, the script calls for her to become more confrontational, and as the tension in her performance increases, that curiosity and unease increases with her. The film probably holds this pose too long, playing with its contrast between sinister and aesthetic beauty, including in the increasingly literal score (with its spooky, breathy “ha-ha-ha-ha” voice). And then, finally, fittingly, he answers the question at his heart, the way “whodunit?” is at the heart of an Agatha Christie novel. Here, that question is just, “What’s going on?”
It’s there that don’t worry darling wavers. There’s an effort to make the answer to the mystery – which I won’t reveal, obviously – feel timely and relevant and even daring. This answer is perfectly passable, otherwise terribly interesting solution to the puzzling situation Alice found herself in. The problem is that the answer to the mystery’s central question doesn’t fit very well with the particular pieces of evidence it has to explain.
I can tell you that after seeing the movie, I understand what the response to Alice’s basic terror was, but I still don’t know why the plane is wobbling in the sky. I still don’t know exactly why, precisely, this woman is on the roof. I don’t know why Alice is stuck between the wall and the window. Since the configuration of don’t worry darling is “Something is seriously wrong”, the movie will eventually tell you what’s wrong. What it doesn’t do is explain why this horribly wrong situation is causing these horribly wrong details.
The mechanics of a good mystery are usually such that when the story builds tension, it’s like building a complicated lock on an ornate door. Each new piece of information creates another complication in the lock mechanism. Then, at some point, you are given a key. You put the key in the lock and turn it, and there’s a satisfying click as it releases the lock and lets you in.
This structure is one of the reasons why people rent, for example, The sixth sense. When you learn the truth about what you are looking at, the key fits perfectly in the lock. Or, to look at it from a whole different angle, consider Rian Johnson’s well-received comic mystery Knives out. Once you’ve seen it a few times, many of the little details that were part of the family history and the winding narrative are explained away by everything you know by the time it ends.
The problem with don’t worry darling is that it creates a nice lock and a perfectly passable key, but when you put the key in the lock, it doesn’t quite turn. You don’t get that satisfying click. Watching the lock build was always a pleasure; there’s even still some pressure relief seeing what the key looks like. But the interaction between them is not seamless as it should be.
If this issue of the disconnect between clues and the solution sounds familiar to you, it might be because it was the number one complaint from people who hated the (still controversial!) ending of the TV show. Lost. In the end, there was an answer to what was going on (they weren’t in purgatory, they weren’t dead all the time). But there was no connection between the answer and many of the delicious crumbs that were dropped over the course of the series.
For me – and I think for a certain proportion of the rest of the Lost audience – the writers got away with it more than they did, because the series’ ending felt emotionally true and compelling, even if it wasn’t logically intact. As I wrote at the time: “The series, ultimately, died as it lived: delivering effective character studies from murky logistics.”
Had don’t worry darling paid off that way, emotionally and with a satisfying conclusion for Alice as a character, it might matter less that the whole thing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you sit with it for more than about 60 seconds. But partly because the film has been hovering for so long in this highly enjoyable and effective liminal space of tension-building and omen, it doesn’t have much time for its resolution, which feels rushed and leaves the distinct impression that ‘parts are missing that perhaps once offered more answers to specific questions about who does what to whom and why.
It’s a shame, because there are some good performances here, including both Pugh and Pine (very believable as dangerous bosses), and there are some really scary shots that work really well. But while too much explanation can doom a mystery as easily as too little, this is a case where a little more explicit information about how this neighborhood works could have gone a long way.