Alice knows it. Her life would be the envy of many a 1950s housewife: The house, the car, the shopping, the husband. He works to make this life possible for her. And she loves him for it.
Sure, she’d also love to see Jack more than she does, but the Victory Project demands sacrifices. Jack’s doing important work out there. All the men of Victory are. They are, as Victory’s impresario recites like a mantra, “Changing the world.”
Alice is happy to be a part of this change—even if she doesn’t know what that it is or why it’s important. No matter: Alice doesn’t need to know. Jack does, and that’s enough for her. After all, she has an important job, too: to cook; to clean; to make sure that when Jack comes home, he comes back to a sanctuary. And that sanctuary must be … perfect.
So what if they’re nearly isolated, surrounded by brown hills and gray desert? Alice understands. The Victory Project demands secrecy, after all—loose lips sink ships and all that. And certainly, it’s not the first experimental community built around such work. And the community itself lacks nothing. The pools shine brightly in the California sun. The lawns are filled with palm trees and green grass.
And it’s not as if they’re trapped there. Alice and her friends can still take the shuttle to the nearest town and shop to their pocketbooks’ content.
Yes, Victory is perfect. Just perfect. Most of Alice’s friends agree. Bunny may complain about her two kids. Peg may seem like she’s perpetually pregnant. But whatever small domestic trials they suffer just make their regular afternoon rounds of cocktails all the tastier.
But for some, it seems, perfect is not enough.
Margaret used to be one of Alice’s best friends. Then one day, she walked out into the desert with her little boy. The boy didn’t come back. And in a way, Margaret didn’t either. Yes, her body returned to Victory, but something happened out there. All the medical help she’s gotten since, all the therapy, it doesn’t seem to take. Her eyes are vacant, her voice curiously dead.
“We shouldn’t be here,” She says, awkwardly, at Frank’s latest pool party—eyes confused, hands limp.
Frank has an answer for that. “What are we doing here?” he rhetorically asks his fawning guests. “Changing the world!” they say.
But Alice—forgive her—feels herself changing, too. She’s seeing things she shouldn’t see, feeling things she shouldn’t feel.
One day she crushes a half-dozen eggs in her hand, one after the other: no reason, no cause. Another day, while she scrubs the windows, the hallway closes in on her—pressing her into the glass. She’s having nightmares. Hallucinations.
It shouldn’t be happening. She knows these hallucinations could ruin everything. Why, Alice knows her life is perfect—as perfectly smooth and cool and blemishless as an egg fresh from the carton.
But eggs crack.
And what’s on the inside might not look so perfect.
“Positives” in the community of Victory can be difficult to sift. Everyone, on some level, is living in a state of denial, and even apparent acts of caring can cloak sinister motivations.
But when Alice begins to agree with Margaret—that there’s something rotten at the heart of Victory—her pursuit of the truth is admirable
Victory can feel like a cult. Frank, the group’s leader, is treated by many as almost a messianic figure, whose decisions and motives can and should never be questioned. When a new employee expresses his eagerness to meet Frank, another employee slaps him down—telling him that he should be honored to just walk on the same grass as Frank does.
When Frank makes one of his occasional pep talks, he also alludes to the fact that outsiders might consider what they’re doing in Victory crazy or abnormal, sounding for all the world like a cult leader. Alice listens to recordings of Frank speaking—where he sounds like part self-help guru, part spiritual swami. And during a dance class, the students (including Alice) recite in unison, “There is beauty in control, there is grace in symmetry … we move as one.”
Combined, those elements reinforce the narrative that Victory is some sort of machine, if you will—one in which each worker and wife is a cog, to be directed at whim by Frank himself. (Indeed, at one party, Frank makes one worker dance as if he was a trained monkey.)
Alice and Jack have quite the passionate marriage. In one instance, a sexual encounter happens on the dining room table. In another, the two take a stolen moment in a bedroom during a party, where more sexual contact between the two is strongly indicated. We don’t see anything critical in either scene, but we do see Alice, especially, in the throes of sexual ecstasy.
During that stolen encounter (at Frank’s house), Frank walks in on them and watches. Alice eventually notices Frank, and she watches him as Frank watches her, leering, as she nears climax. Later, at a more corporate party, Alice again catches Frank ogling her: He does not turn away.
But perhaps female objectification is part of Victory’s culture. During that corporate shindig, Frank’s wife (Shelley) gives Frank a special gift: A stripper who eventually writhes inside a gigantic champagne glass. The stripper doesn’t seem to strip down to her birthday suit: She appears to be wearing a form-fitting, mostly see-through plastic body suit. (Again, moviegoers won’t see anything critical, but it certainly is meant to feel titillating and objectifying).
A woman walks through a pool area without a top (though the camera shows us only her bare back). White-wigged, bathing-suit-wearing women are seen on Victory’s television screens and in Alice’s dreams. Alice and Jack kiss and embrace—sometimes tenderly, sometimes passionately.
Alice takes a few baths; we see her shoulders and, indistinctly, other parts of her, but nothing critical is seen. Women wear bathing suits, revealing eveningwear and form-fitting garb. Jack is shown without a shirt.
[Spoiler Warning] At a dinner party, Frank claims that he and Alice slept together. It’s the only indication of such an encounter during the film, and everyone—including Alice—seems shocked at the accusation. But she also doesn’t deny it.
People die in Don’t Worry Darling—one by her own hand. The suicide victim stands on a roof and draws a knife across her throat, then topples from the rooftop out of sight. (In flashback, we see the body land on the ground.) Someone else is killed after getting hit in the head with a glass. Another victim is stabbed. Blood covers someone’s nightgown.
One character stoically wraps her head with plastic kitchen wrap, as if calmly testing suicide. A mysteriously moving wall presses against a huge window, threatening to push her through it. Alice seems to see another woman on the other side of a mirror—slamming her forehead into the glass until the mirror begins to break and blood begins to flow.
Two cars crash into each other, perhaps resulting in fatalities. We hear about children dying. Security personnel roughly handle Alice. Someone undergoes painful shock therapy. People physically struggle with each other, and someone is dragged against their will. People drive dangerously. A plane seems to go down into the scrubby hills around Victory.
There are rumors that Victory’s menfolk are working on a weapon. Sometimes the earth shakes, presumably from what’s going on at the workplace/laboratory.
We hear seven f-words and one s-word. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch” and “h—“. God’s name is misused more than 15 times, and Jesus’ name is abused twice. Middle fingers are visible as well.
The 1950s were a boozy time, and Victory pours plenty of it. The movie opens with Alice and her friends balancing cocktails on their heads as they dance to entertain their husbands. Everyone involved is clearly quite inebriated, and they proceed to get more so.
Alice and her friends eagerly down cocktails elsewhere. They joke about Peg drinking while pregnant. Indeed, most every gathering involves alcohol (be it cocktails or champagne, beer or wine). Bunny, one of Alice’s friends, smokes cigarettes frequently.
When Alice’s increasingly erratic behavior begins to worry Jack and draws the interest of the company, a doctor comes to prescribe a bevy of drugs to help Alice (he says) get better. Jack insists it’s not necessary, and the doctor leaves without pushing the issue.
A lot of lies lurk at the heart of Don’t Worry Darling. And the people telling them will do whatever they can to protect their deception.
Don’t Worry Darling, the movie’s title tells us. But darling, there’s plenty to worry about.
That goes for Alice herself, of course. The world that the film asks her to navigate is weird and troubled—as dreamy and as ultimately unsettling as another Alice’s Wonderland. (Director Olivia Wilde definitely intends for us to recall this literary Alice, by the way: The recurring images of windows and mirrors remind us, repeatedly, of Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.) It’s a horrific thriller that takes some clever, unexpected turns and lands in a deeply (and purposefully) troubling place.
But viewers don’t come away unscathed. While clever at times, Don’t Worry Darling is confused and muddled at others. Some turns of the plot feel as if they were drawn up by a raccoon—which is especially off-putting in a drama that clearly wants its viewers to think.
And that’s to say nothing of the content we see and hear: the language, blood and, especially, the sex.
“I kept saying, ‘Why isn’t there any good sex in film anymore?’” Wilde told Vogue. She was committed to bringing sex back to film with Don’t Worry Darling, apparently—though Plugged In would quibble with it being a “good” development.
Don’t Worry Darling aims to be a trippy, erotic and (most especially) thoughtful thriller. But given the movie’s issues, I’d not think twice about skipping it.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.