First things first: it was unfair of everyone on Twitter to mock Harry Styles – on the basis of a single out-of-context online clip – for his wonky and unconvincing transatlantic accent in this film. There turns out to be a reason for it. Unfortunately, that reason is part of a larger wonkiness and unconvincingness in this handsomely designed but hammily acted, laborious and derivative mystery chiller. Directed by Olivia Wilde, it superciliously pinches ideas from other films without quite understanding how and why they worked in the first place. It spoils its own ending simply by unveiling it, and in so doing shows that serious script work needed to be done on filling in the plot-holes and problems in a fantastically silly twist-reveal.
The setting is 1950s suburbia, or some disturbingly fabricated alt-reality version of 1950s suburbia, a glitchless picture-perfect place for a satire on conformity and patriarchy. This is a gleaming new housing development in the Californian desert, with state-of-the-art homes for families and upscale professional couples; there are retail stores and a swish country club for tennis and swimming. And everyone works for a single company with the faintly Orwellian name “Victory”, which is also the name of the town. The firm does top-secret work which employees are forbidden to discuss, and the locality is periodically disturbed by crockery-rattling mini-quakes which everyone has learned to ignore. The wives have swallowed their anxiety and thus have a glazed, affectless expression, like the Valium addicts of postwar America or those mannequins in the fake nuclear-test “doom towns” built by the US government in the Nevada desert.
Victory’s golden couple are Jack (Styles) and his stay-at-home wife Alice (Florence Pugh) who are apparently blissfully happy, loved up and living the American Dream. Jack is on the verge of serious promotion and they love hanging out with other Victory employees, such as the waspishly witty Bunny, played by Wilde herself. But the company chief Frank (Chris Pine) and his glacial wife Shelley (Gemma Chan) have the creepy assurance of cult leaders. There is a weird, anguished outburst from a depressed company wife at one of their claustrophobic parties, and Alice begins to suspect that something is very wrong.
Like Katharine Ross and Peter Masterson in Bryan Forbes’s The Stepford Wives from 1975, or Jeanne Tripplehorn and Tom Cruise in Sydney Pollack’s 1993 thriller The Firm, Jack and Alice are a couple who are at first thrilled by how great their lives are and do not suspect there is anything going on. They are seduced by the narcotic stupor of prosperity: the drinks, the food, the gleaming automobiles and the incessant jukebox slams of catchy music. But some occult evil can be glimpsed.
So far, so interesting … but where are we going with all this? The film feels it has to avoid the obvious reason for Victory’s existence and go down the rabbit hole after something else: so when the switch is finally flipped to give us the big secret, it feels absurdly negligible and contrived, and the details are not thought through. Styles may or not be a talented actor; it’s not easy to tell from this, but the normally excellent Pugh has not been interestingly directed, certainly not compared with her work in broadly comparable movies such as Midsommar or The Falling.
It is a movie marooned in a desert of unoriginality – and the desert doesn’t bloom.
• Don’t Worry Darling screened at the Venice film festival, and will be released on 23 September in the US and UK.