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On the trapdoors of “Don’t Worry Darling” and “Speak No Evil.”

click to enlarge Florence Pugh and Olivia Wilde star in "Don't Worry Darling," which offers some sleek, period fetishism and an obvious story utilizing the ever-popular "false reality allegory."

Florence Pugh and Olivia Wilde star in "Don't Worry Darling," which offers some sleek, period fetishism and an obvious story utilizing the ever-popular "false reality allegory."

After the endless bad press, prompted by a director with foot-in-mouth disease, Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling” turns out merely to be a mediocre movie with signs of life. It is smooth, well-designed, and well-acted by certain performers, but Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman can’t surmount the crushing obviousness of their story.

“Don’t Worry Darling” belongs to a trend that gripped American cinema in the late 1990s and early aughts, when movies were fond of offering up variations of the “it was all a dream” twist as a critique of society. In many cases, protagonists weren’t grappling with a dream, but a corrupt world that manipulated reality to control them or else tormented them so much they deluded themselves. Within a few years, there was “Dark City.” “The Matrix.” “Fight Club.” “The Truman Show.” “Mulholland Drive.” “Vanilla Sky.” “The Village.” And though it doesn’t pivot on a false reality or warped psyche, I’m inclined to include “Office Space” in this group, at least spiritually, as it shares with these other films a sense of dreams dashed and alienation cultivated. I’m forgetting many others.

It has been postulated that this trend was a subconscious reaction to the waning, cynical days of the Clinton administration and, later, to 9/11 and Dubya’s war party in the Middle East. These ideas feel partially true, though I think privilege may have quite a bit to do with this obsession we have with “truth.” I’m guessing that people starving don’t have existential questions about whether they’re here or actually in, say, a sensory deprivation tank presided over by aliens. I’m also guessing that citizens of a recently destroyed city are similarly disinterested in such reveries. But when you’re essentially safe and online all the time and sampling other carefully cultivated (often embittered) realities, then it’s easy to wonder if everything is an illusion. Because, online at least, much of it is.

With the rise of highly fractured discourse (I’m attempting to put it politely), particularly Choose Your Own Political Reality and Its Attending Principles to Be Unquestioned, it’s no wonder that “false reality” allegories are returning. David Lynch, always ahead of the curve, anticipated the return of this trend and its attending American despair a few years ago in his astonishing “Twin Peaks: The Return.” That miniseries didn’t exactly have a plot, instead proffering many realities within realities and watching while his iconic characters attempted to reconcile with it all.

But “Get Out” was the first bullet fired in this new wave of alienated American pop cinema and “Don’t Worry Darling” follows its path. Remember the red pill of “The Matrix?” That was coopted by men’s rights groups online, who used it as a metaphor for men having to re-embrace their masculinity amidst rising tides of feminism and political correctness. “Don’t Worry Darling” is a prolonged shaggy joke about that.

Like most movies that are all about “the twist,” “Don’t Worry Darling” is roughly 75 percent set-up, leaving us waiting as the protagonist catches up with us. Veterans of the movies mentioned throughout this piece will get the gist of what’s going on within 10 minutes, though Alice (Florence Pugh) has to contend with many nonsensical, yet sometimes surprisingly eerie, signifiers of unease before getting there.

Alice—that name gives you an idea of this movie’s obviousness—is a cute, perfect little 1950s-era housewife married to Jack (Harry Styles), who works with the other fellas at a place called Victory, where they go and do something mysterious. The women don’t work, don’t drive, and don’t have money, but live on charge cards that never seem to come due and take a trolley that travels essentially in a circle. Wilde is fond of circle motifs here.

And on it goes. The women dress glitzy, the men wear suits, and sex and multi-course meals are on tap every night unconditionally. Vintage period needle drops abound, as do roaring parties in which male drunkenness is excused as “boys will be boys.” Jack and the other guys worship their leader, Frank, who is wittily played by Chris Pine as a gloss on a cult leader. Pine’s mannerisms, particularly his speech patterns, suggest that he's studied Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s L. Ron Hubbard surrogate in “The Master.”

The problem is that everything here is bracketed in such intense quotation marks that we’re never tempted to surrender to the illusion. The twist isn’t a shock, but an inevitable punchline to a plot that’s otherwise borderline pointless. It was profoundly upsetting to learn in “Mulholland Drive” that much of what we were seeing was a fantasy born of a death rattle. In “Don’t Worry Darling,” you sit back, smug, waiting for the humdinger.

Wilde’s period fetishism gives “Don’t Worry Darling” its initial juice, and she and the gifted cinematographer Matthew Libatique spring a few wicked, rhyming tracking shots. The sleekness of the film’s design, particularly all those lux vintage sports cars, inform the film with empathy. This isn’t quite the glib man-hating diatribe I feared. One doesn’t have to be a caveman oppressor to fantasize about a world of plenty: of money and sex, yes, but more importantly of feeling as if you have a place. Wilde seems to understand why people can be reactionary: the fear that redefining a world will rob them of purpose. Given the erosion of professions, the crippling of unions, the farming out of other professions, such fears are founded. From the vantage point of 2022, it’s easy to watch a lush, sexy show like “Mad Men,” which is conscious of the evils of its world, the “wrong way.”

At a certain point, though, you may start playing a game, trying to sort the intentional dissonances from those born of fake-smart sloppiness. Styles’ shifting accent—sometimes he’s British, as in real life, sometimes American, sometimes both—is a subtle and chilling joke. The needle drops don’t all make sense, which is something Wilde could have had more fun with. Instead, she sprinkles in Busby Berkeley numbers for no discernible reason. And a quest to discover the origins of a crashed plane means less than nothing.

In place of juggling some of those fancies, Wilde could’ve developed the relationship between Alice and Jack. The twist has one surprise, as it hinges on a more profound betrayal than we could’ve imagined. Picture gaslighting as a true mental rape and you’re close. But this conceit doesn’t hit as hard as it could have because Alice and Jack don’t linger in the imagination. They are just our avatars for navigating Wilde’s fastidious, contrived fantasyland. Given the theme of the movie, that’s deeply, unintentionally ironic.

click to enlarge A still from the horror-thriller "Speak No Evil" directed by Christian Tafdrup.
  • A still from the horror-thriller "Speak No Evil" directed by Christian Tafdrup.

“Speak No Evil” is another thriller that attempts to utilize a twistto make a sociological point. It is far more insinuating than Wilde’s film, as director Christian Tafdrup has a gift for allowing small, realistic gestures to gradually bloom into madness. Its first 45 minutes, charged with mystery and tension, as well as sporting an extraordinary subject, are well worth seeing, but Tafdrup paints himself into a corner that he can’t escape.

Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) are a self-conscious, vaguely dweeby Danish couple who’re on vacation with their daughter, Agnes (Liva Forsberg), in Tuscany. While abroad, they befriend a Dutch family, Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), wife Karin (Karina Smulders), and son Abel (Marius Damslev), who, with the exception of the disturbed boy, suggest hipper, sexier counterparts. Months later, Patrick and Karin invite Bjørn and Louise to visit their home for a weekend, which they accept. And this visit, rich in misunderstandings that potentially foreshadow malice, is the majority of the movie.

At first, it’s tiny things. The bed that Patrick and Karin have prepared for Agnes is ludicrously small. Patrick keeps forgetting that Louise is a vegetarian, attempting to ply her with meat. There’s also a persistent low hum of hostility, which Tafdrup and the actors mine with disconcerting ease. This is the sort of ambiguity that “Don’t Worry Darling” desperately lacks, in which we’re prompted to wonder precisely where the line separating awkwardness from barbarity resides.

Patrick and Karin keep pushing, and Bjørn and Louise keep retreating, attempting to will away the encroaching sense of menace with the bromides and niceties that we’re all conditioned to hide behind. The falseness of social rituals, especially for ‘respectable’ middle-aged people, is the film’s subject. Tafdrup wants us to ask ourselves: At what point would we defend ourselves? Can we break free of the shackles of complacency? The troubling conclusions of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and Stanley Milgram’s experiments, float around in “Speak No Evil.”

I’m also saddened to report that Michael Haneke’s cinema informs “Speak No Evil” as well. Say what you will about Haneke, but he can piss you off. I haven’t seen “Funny Games” in years, and I don’t intend to change that anytime soon, but Haneke’s breaking of the fourth wall in that movie still infuriates me. Tafdrup emulates Haneke’s smugness, as well as his certainty that he’s teaching us about ourselves, but lacks his precision.

The explanation for what’s going on with Patrick and Karin is amazingly cruel, but it doesn’t make any sense, and so it’s easy to shrug off. Haneke is legitimately willing to sacrifice genre pleasures for the sake of his sermon—he puts his money where his mouth is—but Tafdrup lulls us into (derivative) thriller rhythms before lecturing us on our great, inherited timidity. It just doesn’t wash, especially since the atrocities that eventually unfurl have nothing to do with the superb comedy of manners that preceded them.

Here's the thing about twists: they’re fun but usually trivial, the cinematic equivalent of crackerjack prizes. They lead filmmakers astray. For every “Psycho” or “Mulholland Drive,” they are 10 movies along the lines of “Don’t Worry Darling” and “Speak No Evil.”

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