By Olivia Ruiz
Olivia Wilde’s highly anticipated sophomore psychological thriller, “Don’t Worry Darling,” released in theaters on September 23th. Even weeks before its release, it incited a large controversy for all of the wrong reasons.
Starring Florence Pugh and Harry Styles as lead couple Alice and Jack Chambers, the film first generated excitement amongst the public due to its star-studded cast. Yet, as time passed, it seemed that with every week, a new headline surfaced, highlighting yet another issue with the film’s production. From Styles replacing Shia Lebuff, who was initially casted as the lead male, to rumors of an offscreen feud between Wilde and Pugh, reinforced by Pugh’s absence during the film’s press conference at the Venice Film festival. Despite ongoing media frenzy, Wilde urged audiences to ignore the tabloids and instead focus on the film’s underlying message, marketing it a feminist psychothriller.
In a 2021 Vogue interview, Wilde described the film as “‘The Feminine Mystique’ on acid.” Wilde stated that she drew inspiration for “Don’t Worry Darling” from the novel–which is largely credited for inspiring a new wave of feminism in the early 1960s. Wilde told Vogue the movie explored the question, “What are you willing to sacrifice to do what’s right? If you really think about it, are you willing to blow up the system that serves you?”
As I walked into the theater, I wondered if the drama swirling around the film would overshadow the feminist theme Wilde had spent weeks promoting. As the credits rolled, I realized there was a deeper issue at hand: The deployment of a Black martyr trope in a film that initially promised to spotlight female empowerment.
“Don’t Worry Darling” centers around Alice (Florence Pugh), a devoted housewife who resides with her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), in a 1950s-styled community called Victory.
Early on in the film, Alice appears content with her duties: cooking and preparing meals for Jack, cleaning, and hanging out with the other housewives within the community, Bunny (Olivia Wilde), Peg (Kate Berlant), and Violet (Sydney Chandler). Alice soon begins to notice the strange behavior of her former friend Margaret (KiKi Layne), who was ostracized from the community after breaking protocol and going out into the restricted area of the community with her son and losing him.
Margaret—the only named Black woman in Victory—is first to recognize and call out the peculiarities beneath the community’s facade, yet she is given insufficient screentime to do so. She only delivers a handful of lines during her confrontation with community leader, Frank (Chris Pine), before being gaslit by all of the residents and hauled away by her husband (Ari’el Stachel).
Later in the film, Alice witnesses a plane crash in the Victory desert, hinting to Alice that Victory may not be what it seems. In hopes of corroborating the incident, Margaret calls Alice to ask if she also saw the plane crash, knowing that Alice, too, is beginning to see the deception of Victory. Shortly after their conversation, Alice discovers Margaret on top of her roof, where she gruesomely slashes her own throat and falls to her death.
As Alice screams out in shock and panic, Men in red sent from Victory pull her away from the scene. Alice then begins to see hallucinations of a deceased Margret, before she disappears for the rest of the film.
From its initial trailer Kiki Layne’s inclusion in the movie appeared to have a notable impact on the movie’s storyline, with Wilde even stating in a 2021 interview with Elle that Layne had “one of the most challenging roles in the film […] I am blown away by her ability to be so vulnerable in one scene and playful in the next. KiKi is clearly a movie star.” The movie’s final cut, however, does not capture this performance, leaving Layne barely any screen time.
In an Instagram post on September 25th, Layne shared that she and costar Ari’el Stachel were largely omitted from the film’s released version, writing, “The best thing about #DontWorryDarling is that I was lucky enough to meet @arielstachel. They cut us from most of the movie, but we thriving in real life “#GotMyCheck #GotMyMan #EverythingHappensForAReason.”
By using her suicide as a plot device to further Alice’s story, the movie downplays the significance of Margret’s character. Alice emerges as the story’s protagonist and encourages audience members to root for her, while she simply did the exact thing Margaret was shunned for.
Margaret is not the only character severely underutilized throughout the film. Shelly (Gemma Chan), the only other woman of color in the movie, is incredibly undeveloped. Her rudimentary story arc paints her as a devoted wife in one scene and then suddenly a rebel in the next–with no explanation why.
It is frankly disappointing to see Layne and Chan play such one-dimensional characters, especially in a movie that vowed to center female characters. Incorporating all of Layne’s original filmed scenes would have addressed most of the film’s plot holes, yet she only receives only a handful of lines despite being the driving force of the story.
“Don’t Worry Darling” ultimately falls short of any feminist ideals Wilde promised to audiences. There is an absence of the true feminism needed to achieve this notion, intersectional feminism. While the film is an entertaining watch, the promotion of the film mirrors that of Victory, promising one thing while delivering something else entirely.