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Florence Pugh stars as Alice in Don't Worry Darling.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

  • Don’t Worry Darling
  • Starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles and Chris Pine
  • Directed by Olivia Wilde
  • Written by Katie Silberman
  • Classification 14A; 123 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Sept. 23

As far as depictions of male rage go, cinema has given us no shortage of iconic and memorable portrayals, from Robert De Niro’s quietly simmering psychopath in Taxi Driver to Brad Pitt’s bombastic brutalizer in Fight Club. What both of these films did is take us into a world of rejection, isolation and alienation, where they could skewer, without excusing, the social circumstances that breed a certain kind of dangerous man.

There is no doubt that director Olivia Wilde was hoping to do something similar with her second feature film, Don’t Worry Darling, a richly shot but ultimately one-dimensional portrait of toxic masculinity, which never quite gets where it thinks it’s going.

Set in a pristinely manicured and obscenely sunny development in the middle of the desert, the film immediately transports us to a beautiful, bygone era. The men all drive shiny, pastel convertibles and wear sharply tailored suits, while the women keep immaculate homes, spending their mornings cleaning and shopping and their evenings making dinner and drowning in cocktails. It is a kind of paint-by-numbers version of the American dream, a juvenile idea of happiness and sexiness where wives serve dinner in heels and breakfast in oversized “men’s” shirts.

We’re glimpsing this world through the eyes of Alice and Jack, a blissfully married couple played by Florence Pugh and Harry Styles. Alice is happy whiling away the days gossiping with her neighbours Bunny (Olivia Wilde) and Peg (Kate Berlant), and her nights making love with Jack. In fact, we’re meant to think these two are so wildly passionate that not even one of Alice’s multicourse meals can keep them from tearing each other’s clothes off at the dinner table in a scene that became magazine fodder because of Harry Styles’ – I mean Jack’s – eagerness to please.

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Viewers glimpse the world of Don't Worry Darling through the eyes of Alice and Jack, a blissfully married couple played by Pugh and Harry Styles.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

In many interviews about the film, Wilde has spoken about this moment in particular as summing up her approach to Don’t Worry Darling, to centre on female pleasure as much as possible, which is a generous act in general. But in a film about the confines and contours of male entitlement, well, it doesn’t quite make sense.

It is one of the film’s many confusing choices – from Alice’s sudden about-face about her seemingly idyllic life, to the eventual reveal of what it is they’re all doing out there in the desert anyway – that make it clear that there were one too many Wikipedia tabs open when the script was written.

Wilde has said real-life figures in the men’s rights movement like Jordan Peterson helped inspire the character of Frank (Chris Pine), the charismatic leader and de facto guru of this valley of guys and dolls. Certainly, Frank appears to be hiding something, though his brand of machismo doesn’t come across as menacing so much as accidentally hilarious.

In one climactic scene, Frank promotes Jack into the senior leadership of the “Victory Project,” the name for this community of acolytes Frank has built. In front of a worked-up group of colleagues and their docile wives, Frank is riling up Jack to perform an act of gratitude for the crowd. In Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, this is the point when the men would start pounding their chests. In David Fincher’s Fight Club, it would initiate a brawl. Here, Harry Styles starts tap dancing.

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Director Olivia Wilde has said real-life figures in the men’s rights movement like Jordan Peterson helped inspire the character of Frank, right, played by Chris Pine.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

As Alice begins to question what it’s all for – how exactly she ended up in this simulacrum of a life, exemplified one morning at breakfast when the eggs she’s using appear to be empty, breaking apart like hollow shells in Alice’s hands – the tension builds toward a reveal that is so painfully obvious that it cannot help but fall flat.

Luckily, Pugh is captivating as Alice, enriching this otherwise rote thriller with as much turmoil and betrayal as she can. Styles does his best to keep pace but it’s hardly a fair ask. It’s often difficult to know what Styles is meant to convey, whether we should pity or fear his character, or if he’s even there at all. There are glimpses of a sharper, more intriguing film within the glossy, richly costumed walls of Don’t Worry Darling, but the version that made it on screen is much like Alice’s eggs: beautiful but empty.

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