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'Don't Worry Darling' and the mechanics of a mystery

Florence Pugh plays Alice in <em>Don't Worry Darling</em>.
Warner Bros. Entertainment
Florence Pugh plays Alice in Don't Worry Darling.

It wouldn't take you long to list a whole series of occurrences that would persuade you that something was terribly wrong in your world. Say, a giant dog materializes in your living room. You break an egg, and it's full of ketchup. Your spouse fails to come home from a trip, but their suitcase is sitting on your doorstep. Something, obviously, is wrong. What would probably take longer is figuring out what would explain these things and make for a satisfying resolution to a story about them. Where did the giant dog come from? What happened to the egg? Where on earth is your spouse? The creation of a mystery is this two-step process: create the question, then create the answer.

The new film Don't Worry Darling is a drama and a thriller, but it's also a mystery. We meet Alice (Florence Pugh), who lives in an idyllic midcentury-styled neighborhood with her husband Jack (Harry Styles). This planned community is under the control of Jack's boss Frank (Chris Pine), who runs the mysterious Victory Project, which employs all the local men while their wives keep house. Alice begins to see clues that suggest that something is terribly wrong.

Some of these appear in the trailer: A roar sounds overhead — maybe like there's something military in the men's work. A plane falters in the sky. An egg turns out to be nothing but an empty shell that crumbles in Alice's hand. A woman stands on a roof in a nightgown. Alice finds herself crushed between the wall of her house and the window. She wraps plastic wrap around her own head. In the film, all of these visuals are quite effective in creating two of the most important elements of a mystery-thriller: true curiosity and deep unease.

Finding menace in the conformity of this imagined suburbia of the 1950s and 1960s is hardly new. (The neighborhood reminded me instantly of Edward Scissorhands.) But director Olivia Wilde does find an effective visual language, particularly in the procession of classic cars that make an eerily synchronized exit from Alice and Jack's cul-de-sac every morning. And the use of period music, while sometimes oppressive, works in this context. She also gets a powerful performance from Pugh, who's rapidly becoming one of the most reliable film actresses we have.

As Pugh's Alice becomes more and more unnerved by her surroundings, the script calls on her to become more confrontational, and as the tension in her performance rises, that curiosity and that unease rise with it. The film holds this pose probably too long, playing with its contrast of the ominous and the aesthetically beautiful, including in the increasingly literal score (with its creepy, breathy "ha-ha-ha-ha" vocals). And then, eventually, as it must, it answers the question that lies at its heart, the way "whodunit?" lies at the heart of an Agatha Christie novel. Here, that question is just, "What is going on?"

That's where Don't Worry Darling falters. There's an effort to make the answer to the mystery — which I will not reveal, obviously — feel timely and relevant and even daring. That answer is a perfectly passable, if not terribly interesting, solution to the baffling situation Alice has been in. The problem is that the answer to the mystery's central question doesn't fit terribly well with the particular pieces of evidence it needs to explain.

I can tell you that, having seen the movie, I understand what the answer to Alice's foundational dread was, but I still don't know why the plane falters in the sky. I still don't entirely know why, specifically, that woman is on the roof. I'm not sure why Alice gets squashed between the wall and the window. To the degree the setup of Don't Worry Darling is "Something is terribly wrong," the film will eventually tell you what's wrong. What it doesn't do is explain why that terribly wrong situation is causing these particular terribly wrong details.

The mechanics of a good mystery are usually such that as the story builds tension, it's like the construction of a complicated lock on an ornate door. Every piece of new information creates another complication within the mechanism of the lock. Then, at some point, you are given a key. You put the key in the lock and you turn it, and there is a satisfying click as it disengages the lock and lets you in.

This structure is one of the reasons people praise, for instance, The Sixth Sense. When you learn the truth about what you're watching, the key fits into the lock perfectly. Or, to look at this from another angle entirely, consider Rian Johnson's well-received comic mystery Knives Out. Once you've seen it a few times, lots and lots of little details that were part of the family story and the twisty narrative are explained by all that you know by the time it ends.

The issue with Don't Worry Darling is that it creates a beautiful lock and a perfectly passable key, but when you put the key in the lock, it doesn't quite turn. You don't get that satisfying click. Watching the lock be built was still a pleasure; there's even still some relief of pressure in seeing what the key looks like. But the interplay between them isn't seamless the way it should be.

If this problem of a disconnect between the clues and the solution sounds familiar, it might be because it is the primary complaint of people who hated the (still controversial!) ending of the TV show Lost. Ultimately, there was an answer to what was going on (they were not in purgatory, they were not dead the whole time). But there was not a connection between the answer and many of the delicious crumbs that were dropped over the course of the series.

For me — and I think for some proportion of the rest of the Lost audience — the writers got away with it more than they didn't, because the ending of the series was emotionally true and compelling, even if it wasn't logically intact. As I wrote at the time: "The show, in the end, died as it lived: by offering effective character studies out of murky logistics."

Had Don't Worry Darling paid off in this way, emotionally and with a satisfying conclusion for Alice as a character, it might matter less that the whole thing doesn't make a lot of sense if you sit with it for more than about 60 seconds. But partly because the movie hovers for so long in that very pleasurable and effective liminal space of tension-building and portent, it doesn't have much time to spend with its resolution, which seems rushed and leaves the distinct impression there are pieces missing that perhaps once offered more answers to specific questions about who does what to whom and why.

It's a shame, because there are some good performances here, including both Pugh and Pine (very believable as a dangerous boss), and there are some truly scary shots that work very well. But while too much explanation can doom a mystery as easily as too little, this is a case in which a little more explicit information about the workings of this neighborhood might have gone a long way.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.