LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
A warning - this episode contains mention of domestic abuse.
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HOLMES: "Don't Worry Darling" is, at heart, a mystery. Strange things are happening in the planned community where housewife Alice, played by Florence Pugh, lives with her husband Jack, played by Harry Styles. But what exactly is going on?
STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
In this episode, we're talking about the answers to the questions posed early in "Don't Worry Darling," how satisfying or not we found those answers, and what we think the film wants to say and how well it works. I'm Stephen Thompson.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And in this spoiler-packed episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, we're talking about "Don't Worry Darling."
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HOLMES: Joining me and Stephen today is Aisha Harris. Hello, Aisha.
AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hello, Linda.
HOLMES: And also here with us once again is Ronald Young Jr. He's the host of the film and television review podcast "Leaving The Theater." Welcome back, Ronald.
RONALD YOUNG JR: Thanks for having me, Linda.
HOLMES: So on Friday, we aired a spoiler-free episode about "Don't Worry Darling," but here is a refresher in case you need it. The film is directed by Olivia Wilde. It stars Florence Pugh as Alice and Harry Styles as her husband, Jack. All of their friends live in neat and nearly identical homes. They drive nearly identical cars, all in an apparent throwback to the 1950s where the men go to work and the women stay home and keep house. Alice begins to hear and see things that make her feel like something is very wrong in this planned community, which is all under the control of Frank, played by Chris Pine, and his mysterious Victory Project.
Now, as we mentioned in the intro, this is our episode with spoilers for "Don't Worry Darling." We also have a spoiler-free general discussion about the movie in another episode, but these are the spoilers. So if you don't want spoilers, if you don't want to know what happens, this is your exit ramp. Hit the button.
THOMPSON: Seriously, stop listening.
HOLMES: Turn off the show.
HOLMES: Ready? So, as it turns out, Alice - that's Florence Pugh - or at least her physical body - is essentially being held hostage by Jack - that's Harry Styles - who is, in reality, a grubby and unhappy guy with scraggly hair and glasses whose wanderings into misogynist online communities resulted in his enrolling himself and Alice in this project where they enter this other world of the Victory Project in their minds, while their bodies just lie motionless. Alice is a doctor in the real world. He presumably drugged or disabled her, I assumed, in some way, in order to get her all into this. While he gets to leave the simulation every day and be in the world - that's where all the men, including their buddy Nick Kroll and a bunch of other people - go when they drive off to work in their shiny classic cars. She is a prisoner of sort of him and the world created by his boss, Frank, who is the Chris Pine character.
So when she sort of begins to understand what's happening, she realizes that in order to escape, she has to drive her simulation self to HQ, which is this place out in the desert where there's a kind of portal between the real and the simulated worlds, which is how this science fiction mystery ends up with a classic car chase as its climactic sequence.
So the first thing I want to ask is, do you agree with my description of what the answers were? Because I'm not a hundred percent sure. Does that sound right?
HARRIS: Yeah, that's what I took out of it.
THOMPSON: Not only does that sound right, but I was listening to you explain it, saying to myself, I wish somebody had just read those paragraphs in the movie...
THOMPSON: ...Because we would have had a much clearer sense of what the hell was going on. It was so abrupt.
HOLMES: Yeah. All right, Ronald, what was your reaction to sort of the reveal of what was happening here?
YOUNG: Oh, I thought the reveal was very, very weak. As they started kind of dropping the breadcrumbs as to what was happening - you know, this is the part where they kind of are subjecting her to electroshock therapy in the virtual reality, which now I have questions about what they actually were doing to her in the real world if that's what was happening in the virtual reality, which I'm already starting to confuse myself as I try to explain. But as they make this reveal, they did it all in this way that didn't include any dialogue. You just kind of see Harry Styles walking and looking unshowered (ph), and you hear a few lines coming in now and then about the Victory Project, but I feel like the way they were revealing it wasn't enough time for me to process what was actually happening. I just knew that they were virtually in the world.
So I thought it was kind of weak, and I didn't feel like - I just feel like they could have held my hand a little bit more. I think they looked at me and said, Ronald, you're coming in to watch this movie. We know you've watched "Total Recall." We know you've watched "Interstellar" and "Inception." We know you've watched all that. You get it. And I'm like, no, I don't. I don't understand what's happening here, though. You have to explain to me what's happening here.
HOLMES: Yeah, I hear you. Aisha, what did you think?
HARRIS: I had the exact same reaction, which was the rest of this movie is so blunt and so on the nose and explicit about the setup, and then once we get to what the twist is, there's no sort of explicit exploration of, like, how the Victory Project started, how the male characters live outside of this world. So I think if you're going to make that connection of, like, these characters - these male characters being radicalized by Frank, played by Chris Pine, then you need to, like, take me there even further.
HARRIS: Like, be more blunt and be more explicit about it. And a lot of times, we talk about things being too much or not enough subtlety. But, like, up until this point, nothing about this was subtle.
THOMPSON: Yes, exactly.
HARRIS: But then you muddle the rest of the main crux of this and what makes this actually different from "Stepford Wives" and all of these other things that have come before it. And so it made me so angry because I was like, I want more. I want more of, like, a showdown between Alice and Frank.
HARRIS: Like, after that scene in the kitchen, I was like, this could be, in itself, the entire plot - of her trying to work against him...
HARRIS: ...And try to convince the other women, like, yo, we need to come together. And that doesn't happen here. And that's really where - the focus is just - it's imbalanced. It's not focused on the right things.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I had the experience watching it - you know, a lot of movies we see where it's like, wow, I'm going to think about this movie for days. And I was thinking about this movie for days, but what I was thinking about was, what was the deal with the plane crash? Did a plane crash? Why does she...
YOUNG: Yes. What was that about?
THOMPSON: ...There's a stabbing in this movie that is, like, why?
THOMPSON: What precipitated that? What does that mean?
THOMPSON: I don't actually understand what happens to Alice at the end of this movie. And obviously, it is one thing to leave these things open-ended. Not every loose end has to be tied up, right? Like, stories can be messy. But as Ronald and Aisha were saying, this movie is so blunt. It's so blunt for so long. And then all of a sudden, I'm sitting there going like, so is he an incel? Is that the thing? Like...
THOMPSON: I shouldn't be sitting there thinking, like, what are the motivations behind this? I guess it's probably this.
HOLMES: Yeah. You know, you brought up the plane crash. There's this moment when Alice is sort of riding the trolley...
HOLMES: ...Around town.
HARRIS: The very Disney-like trolley. Yes.
HOLMES: And she sees a plane crash into a mountain, and she runs off to investigate. And that's sort of originally how she both gets kind of a glimpse of this HQ. But also, it's ultimately how she starts to get in trouble with her husband and the community and with Frank for sort of wandering out there where they're not supposed to be and all that stuff. The thing that I found frustrating is that there are things like that plane crash that are effectively unsettling, right? It's like, that's an effective thing where she looks out into this very kind of empty desert and sees a plane sort of streak across the sky and crash. There is a scene where, at a kind of celebration dinner for the company, Frank, the Chris Pine character, brings Jack, the Harry Styles character, up on stage and gives him a promotion, essentially. During the same thing, he forces the Harry Styles character to dance for the audience.
HARRIS: Like a trained monkey. Like...
HOLMES: But Harry Styles kind of looks like a guy forced to dance in a "Twilight Zone" episode, you know? It looks like an unhappy, exhausting - you know, I feel compelled to do this. There's no moment in the kind of final act of the movie that really offers any insight into, what does this promotion mean?
HOLMES: What was the point of him getting promoted? What was that going to change for him?
HOLMES: And what was up with the dancing?
THOMPSON: And where do you work?
THOMPSON: Where do you actually work?
HOLMES: Exactly. The thing that makes a mystery like this satisfying to me is when you get the reveal and then you can kind of go back. And, you know, so many people use "The Sixth Sense" as the effective reveal example. But I do think it's true that one of the things that's really cool about that movie is you can go back and you can be like, OK, this is why all these weird things were happening. I feel like - and I have no idea whether this is how this movie actually came together. But it feels to me like the idea of the mystery was compelling, and they sort of tacked on the explanation for it, which seems like it shouldn't be true because there's such a thematic bluntness around, like, this is the result of misogynistic online communities. And it feels like it should have grown out of somebody saying, I want to make a creepy movie about misogynistic online communities. But if it were being built that way, it's hard for me to believe it would have so many pieces that aren't explained.
HOLMES: There's this quite small role for Kiki Layne as this woman, Margaret, who - first of all, the movie does not engage in any way with the fact that she's, like, the only Black woman that Florence Pugh knows. And my impression what I have heard is that this role was originally going to be Dakota Johnson. So first of all, it doesn't engage with that at all, which is odd to me. But also, the whole purpose of the Kiki Layne character, who - you know, what is that all about? What was she - how did she know what was going on? Why was she in on it? I don't know. Aisha, you look like you want to help me out here.
HARRIS: Well, that was - see, so that was kind of where - the thing with Kiki Layne is that as we learn this is set in the present day - so once that twist happens, it made a little bit more sense to me that they wouldn't necessarily be engaging with the race angle of that. And you also have Gemma Chan playing Frank's wife as well. So, like, I kind of gave it a little bit of leeway in that sense. This is the thing. This twist made me think of that really not great movie "Antebellum," which we did an episode on...
HARRIS: ...Which had a similar twist where we spend part of the movie basically in - on a plantation and suffering all the dignities of being enslaved. At some point in the film, we realize that it's actually - like, it's the present day. But, like, these people don't know it because they've been brainwashed or whatever. So it had that same effect where I'm just like, OK, this is fine - like, interesting. But, like, we have to suffer through all this brutality. And I think, like, to me, that's partially why I was, like, by the end of it, less annoyed about the Kiki Layne character not being sort of explored in that way. But I don't know. I just wanted - I wanted Rod Serling to just jump out and be like, OK, so this is what we were trying to say, because it kind of feels like a cop-out. Like, it feels like...
HARRIS: They don't really want to engage with the thing that they bring up, which is men being radical - like, especially mostly white men being radicalized and wanting things to go back to this mythical land of the 1950s and '60s. And it's really - again, this twist was so disappointing.
HOLMES: It comes up so late in the movie. Ronald, what were you going to say?
YOUNG: You mentioned "Sixth Sense," and I think that another filmmaker who does a good job of putting a mystery, explaining it and making you watch it a second time is Christopher Nolan. And I think about two specific movies - "Tenet" but, more specifically, "Inception." And I think "Inception" is - for me was such a good movie that they don't even explain how we get into the dreams. They just show a machine where you press a button, and then all of a sudden, you're in someone's dreams. And I'm just like, yep, done. Got it.
YOUNG: No problem. Tell me the rest. And I feel like this movie was not good enough to skate by without explaining who made the technology.
YOUNG: Who were the men in red? Who designed this universe? Like, why would Frank taunt Alice?
HOLMES: Right. When you have a movie that's like this where you set up so many things that are like, something is wrong because this is happening, there has to be an explanation of why whatever is wrong is causing those things because, like, for example, in the trailer, you see this moment in which Alice wraps her own head in plastic wrap.
HOLMES: I think that's a very effectively creepy image. When I saw that, I was like, whoa. That's creepy - do not like. But looking at it now, I couldn't tell you why this made her do that. I mean, I suppose the explanation might just be being in this simulation gives these women an impulse to harm themselves.
THOMPSON: Or a sense that they don't have control over their own actions, so you try to thwart what's expected of you.
HOLMES: But none of this is explained. The trailer had a lot of the best visuals in it. My favorite visual in the movie, and one of the ones I think is most unsettling, is when she breaks the egg and there's nothing inside it...
HOLMES: ...Because that's sort of how you're beginning to understand this is a very artificial world. It's one of the things that gives you the creeps. But, like, they don't really make anything more of it in the movie than...
HOLMES: ...Is in the trailer.
YOUNG: Like, why do some eggs have yolks and others don't?
HOLMES: Well, why has she never noticed before that the food doesn't - isn't real food or...
THOMPSON: I just think they spend the entire movie setting up a twist that's sort of, like, what you kind of sort of thought it was going to be, right?
THOMPSON: Maybe that was why they didn't bother to explain it.
HOLMES: I don't...
YOUNG: But I feel like if you're going to do that, that makes the why more important - right...
YOUNG: ...Because if you if you know, we're going to go in a direction, the only distinction you have is why this is happening here.
YOUNG: And if you're not even going to explain that, then you might as well have just said it was all a dream.
THOMPSON: Might as just well - she dreamed it. It was all - yeah. It was a dream.
HARRIS: I would have even loved even just a little bit more of, like, the Harry Styles' and Florence Pugh's characters in the before times, like, just to get a real sense of, like, how this resentment toward her built up and, like...
HARRIS: ...Why he was radicalized.
HOLMES: It's sort of very one-note. There's just a kind of a consideration of the fact that she's a very successful doctor, and she works late. And so therefore, he trapped her in an imaginary world and all that stuff.
THOMPSON: She didn't want to have sex with him that one time.
HOLMES: I mean, I think Aisha's right. You would need a whole other element of the story to really get at what would have led to this rift at this level. And - because if the message is supposed to be, it is so easy for these guys to become radicalized in this way that it doesn't even take very much, then you sort of have to explore that in and of itself, right? Yeah. You know, we talked about casting. And we talked about the fact that the original casting for Jack, the Harry Styles character, was Shia LaBeouf. Olivia Wilde has said she let him go because of, you know, some of his on-set behavior, his work style. He says there were problems with rehearsal time, that he left of his own accord. And it's worth noting that this is all going on while LaBeouf is being sued by the musician FKA Twigs, who accuses him of assault and sexual battery. They have a trial date coming up. You know, looking at sort of his entire situation, the fact that anybody ever thought Shia LaBeouf should play this guy, this sort of overbearing, resentful, ultimately abusive character...
YOUNG: Yeah. I guess for me, the turn at the end, for it to be Shia LaBeouf, I would have been like, oh, yeah, that makes sense. I feel like having the thread underneath Shia this whole time that something else is going on would have probably sent a stronger message at the end when it turns out that he is this controlling person. But you're right. It's too on the nose to match with reality. But that's why I don't think Harry Styles was the man for the job because I think there's not enough edge in him. Unfortunately, Stephen, despite his charm and good looks, I don't think there's enough edge in him to kind of convey that there's anything else going on besides you just being a squeaky-clean guy, so much so you've got to paste a beard on this dude to make him look like he hasn't had a shower so that we can be now creeped out by Harry Styles.
HARRIS: To me, when he was supposed to be angry, that was when Harry Styles lost me.
HARRIS: Like, he was perfectly fine when he was kind of playing the perfect husband and him and Florence Pugh were, like, very attracted to each other, blah, blah, blah. But, yeah, when he has to actually, like, show that sort of - the darker side of that character is where he faltered for me.
HARRIS: But then again, seeing Shia in that performance might be too, like...
HARRIS: And, again, these are all allegations. Like, we can only speculate. But knowing what we know or what we've heard, it would make it a even less pleasant experience, I think, to watch.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I feel like the whole tone would have been different. I think it would have come off like a much more serious movie. I mean, Linda, you were saying about that dancing scene. Was the phrase you used, I feel compelled to dance, or he feels compelled to dance? Just imagine that scene with a Shia LaBeouf.
THOMPSON: Like, it doesn't make as much sense to me. It's a very different movie.
HARRIS: But does that scene exist if Shia LaBeouf had, like...
HARRIS: I wonder how much of it was that or just like, oh, we have Harry Styles in this movie; he needs to dance, because, like, it really doesn't make clear why...
HOLMES: He needs to do a musical number.
HARRIS: It doesn't make clear why this is happening.
HARRIS: You know?
HOLMES: It's so funny to me because I think we are all sort of coming around to a similar place, which is this movie needed to spend a lot less time on the setup, even though it seemed to really be kind of enjoying and kind of rolling around in the tonal stuff of the setup. And I think what happens with mysteries sometimes is the last thing that you think about is the actual answer to the question.
HOLMES: And that's actually the part that comes last. And so it's easy to sort of be like, I just need something that can be the ending. And so it's like a murder mystery that has clues and a solution, but the clues don't necessarily lead to the solution.
HOLMES: So I found the rest of the movie much, much more satisfying than the payoff, which I think is - as Ronald started us off by saying, the payoff is just weak...
HOLMES: ...And lost me at the very end.
YOUNG: I think I actually said, as it went off, I was like, that's a cop-out. As it ended, you know, she wakes up, like, and you just hear her wake up. We don't even see her wake up.
YOUNG: That's a cop-out.
HOLMES: Well, the other thing is, like, what the heck did she do next?
HOLMES: Like, have people missed her? How long was she gone? Like...
HARRIS: So many questions.
HOLMES: Well, we want to know what you think about "Don't Worry Darling." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Ronald Young Jr., Aisha Harris, Stephen Thompson, thanks to you all for being here. This was great fun.
YOUNG: Thanks for having me.
HARRIS: Thank you.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
HOLMES: This episode was produced by Candice Lim and Hafsa Fathima and edited by Rommel Wood, Mike Katzif and Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Linda Holmes, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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