Salty Air

‘Don’t Worry Darling’ fizzles; ‘Pearl’ a killer chiller–Play It Again, Tim

Written by Tim Miller

Alleged screaming matches on the set? Oh, no!

Don’t Worry Darling” (R, 122 minutes, in theaters) has drawn more attention for its behind-the-scenes drama than what appears on the screen.

I won’t get into the gossip because 1) That’s not my job and 2) I don’t care about it.

So, on to what matters …

Whether because of its plot, its characters, its setting or its themes, “Don’t Worry Darling” calls to mind many other movies, among them “The Truman Show,” “Pleasantville,” “The Master,” “The Matrix,” “Seconds,” “Revolutionary Road” and, most obviously, “The Stepford Wives” (pick your version).

Directed by Olivia Wilde (“Booksmart”), and starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles and Chris Pine, it’s a sci-fi thriller set in a ‘50s-style suburban utopia that you just know is going to turn out not as wonderful as it might seem.

Florence Pugh and Harry Styles play a couple living in an experimental community in “Don’t Worry Darling.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Alice (Pugh) and Jack (Styles) are one of many young married couples living in the isolated, pristine community. The men drive to work in their cool cars. The women stay at home, clean house, cook, drink together and gossip. Conformity rules. It’s all so neat and predictable.

People who long for a return to the Eisenhower era might call this paradise. Others might call it hell. Still others might call it a gated community.

The big boss, the guy who conceived of this whole setup known as the Victory Project, is Frank (Pine). Frank isn’t your average powerful CEO; he’s regarded as if he’s a deity. What Frank says goes because, of course, what Frank says is always right. He’s given these couples a rare opportunity to pursue “a different way, a better way” for the future.” Together, they are “changing the world.”

Exactly how, though, is a mystery – at least to the women. They don’t know what their husbands are doing, or how, through Frank’s vision, they’ll be changing the world. All they know is that they can live in their spotless homes, have their cocktail parties, and lead stress-free lives – as long as they don’t question anything, or leave the perimeter of their residential community.

That’s all well and good – until Alice starts to question everything and ventures into a forbidden zone.

This is the point we’re waiting for, when secrets are revealed and Alice reacts to the truth. Sure enough, the film’s third act gets … intense.

But not in a good way. In an attempt to generate excitement, the film goes off the rails with a resolution that comes off as slapdash and unconvincing. The ending, apparently intended as profound or challenging – Or, well, who knows what? – falls flat.

Written by Katie Silberman (also “Booksmart”), the story does present circumstances that could inspire moviegoers to question what life is really all about and what they would do if given certain choices. And the performances, especially Pugh’s, are fine.

But the payoff is a big letdown, and, as the credits roll, you can almost hear the helium fizzling out of a balloon. **½ (out of four)

Goth great in ‘Pearl’

It’s not about Minnie Pearl.

It’s not about Janis Joplin, either.

No, “Pearl” (R, 103 minutes, in theaters) is an insane slasher horror film about a young woman who is, to use the official psychiatric term, completely bonkers.

This is the prequel to “X,” another slasher flick that came out earlier this year. I highly recommend that if you plan to see “Pearl,” you see “X” first (it’s available for rent on demand), though it’s not necessary.

Mia Goth plays the title character in “Pearl.” (A24)

True to its name, “X” is about a group of people who rent a remote cabin on a farm to shoot a porno film. Boy, are they in for an unpleasant surprise. “Pearl” – which, like “X,” was directed by Ti West – goes back in time to tell the story of one of the characters from the first film: Pearl.

Played by Mia Goth (also of “X,” along with “Emma.” and “Suspira,”), young Pearl lives on a farm with her invalid father and stern immigrant mother while awaiting her husband’s return from World War I. Fed up with her boring existence, she plans to audition for a traveling dance troupe with hopes of finding stardom and escape.

“I’m special,” she says. “One day the whole world is gonna know my name.”

Well, maybe. But she also later says, “There might be something really wrong with me,” and that’s a major understatement. And that’s where the horror comes in.

Slasher movies represent (to my mind, at least) the lowest of the low when it comes to genres. Most seem little more than torture porn, where the thrill arguably is watching people die in increasingly gruesome ways. Good times.

“X,” and now “Pearl,” are better than that. Yes, they are slashers, where, ultimately, we do watch a string of people getting butchered. (Consider yourself warned.)

But these films – the first written by West; “Pearl” written by West and Goth – along with being darkly, and slyly, funny (especially “Pearl”), address issues involving the desperate need for attention and self-validation; the challenges of marriage and other family responsibilities; fantasy vs. reality; madness; and the nature of evil.

And Goth is extraordinary. She compellingly plays two very different types of characters in “X,” and in “Pearl,” playing one of them in her youth, she is scary as hell. But there’s more to her performance than that. She creates a character who’s like a jigsaw puzzle, only there are several pieces missing, and what the puzzle ultimately depicts is terrifying.

The final, extended shot of Goth, in which she captures the complexity and essence of her character, is possibly the most amazing thing I’ve seen in a movie this year, and easily the most unsettling. ***½ (out for four)

** Click here for  Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **

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Tim Miller

Play It Again, Tim

Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He also teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.

About the author

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, was the Cape Cod Times film critic for nearly 36 years. A Detroit native (and hardcore Tigers fan), he’s been obsessed with movies since skipping school in 1962 to see “Lawrence of Arabia” with his parents when he was 7. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his master’s from Suffolk University, where he taught film and journalism for 10 years. He continues to teach film at Curry College and Cape Cod Community College. He is a juror each year for the short-film competition of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, has moderated several panel discussions at the Woods Hole Film Festival and frequently is heard as a guest on Cape & Islands NPR station WCAI. His work appeared as a chapter in the book “John Sayles: Interviews.” His favorite movie is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” – because it makes him feel good to be alive.

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