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Opinion The question that was too wild for ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ to ask

Florence Pugh and Harry Styles in “Don’t Worry Darling.” (Warner Bros. Pictures) (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Don’t Worry Darling,” the source of the hottest gossip on the fall film circuit, turns out to be a stylish but familiar story of the creepy goings-on behind a happy domestic surface. The movie’s attacks on retro gender roles and abusive tech wizards are of a piece with director Olivia Wilde’s feminist commitments, but their predictability is also a bit of a letdown.

Now, more than ever, it would have been exciting to see a director with Wilde’s bona fides pose the provocative question that “Don’t Worry Darling” hints at but can’t quite confront: What should feminism do about women who wonder if liberation is a bad bargain?

That there’s going to be a twist is obvious from the get-go in “Don’t Worry Darling.” Alice (Florence Pugh) and her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), live in a mid-century modern dream of a planned community called Victory, where the women keep immaculate houses and the men work mysterious jobs and grovel for the approval of Frank (Chris Pine), the town’s architect. Clearly, all is not as it seems, and the one woman bold enough to say so is stigmatized as a crazy lady.

But when the twist arrives, “Don’t Worry Darling” reveals just how much political potential it squandered. (I can’t warn you strongly enough to turn back here if you haven’t seen the movie and hope to be surprised by it.)

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Alice, it turns out, was once a surgeon. Jack, rattled and emasculated by the contrast between his stalled career and Alice’s success, becomes an acolyte of Frank, a silkier and more sinister riff on Canadian psychologist-turned-masculinity-guru Jordan Peterson. Jack drugs Alice and keeps her shackled in a canopy bed, where a sophisticated headset projects an immersive illusion into her propped-open eyes. Her life in Victory is a simulation, designed and overseen by Frank. Jack, like the other men who live there, has committed to caring for the body of his “personal wife” in the real world — and to building Frank’s movement in exchange for the chance to reside in a retrograde fantasy.

After Alice recovers memories of her old life and confronts Jack about what he’s done, he insists it was for their benefit. He’s just freed her from her miserable rotation schedule! He’s making a sacrifice by leaving the simulation every day for a job that pays for Alice’s prison!

The message is blunt: Only a pathetic monster steals a woman’s life from her and reframes the theft as a gift. Only a loser needs to tear a woman down to feel better about himself.

But there’s a far more interesting — and much more dangerous — question lingering behind that indictment of Jack’s motivations. Why might someone choose to live in Victory?

For Alice’s neighbor Bunny (Wilde herself), the projection provides a relief from grief. In the real world, she tells Alice, her children are dead. In Victory, she at least has simulations of them: eternal scamps who come off the school bus every day to wreak havoc in her perfect yard. That’s a tempting, but underdeveloped, plotline: Viewers never learn how Bunny found Frank in the first place.

And “Don’t Worry Darling” implies that at least one woman is invested in the project on its own terms. Frank’s wife, Shelley (Gemma Chan), leads the other wives in hypnotic ballet classes, treats him to burlesque performances, defends him from Alice’s attacks — and then stabs him to death when Alice’s escape threatens to bring down the project, declaring that it’s “her turn,” though for what, the film doesn’t say. The implication is that Shelley is disgusted with Frank for the missteps that put the community at risk, but again, “Don’t Worry Darling” doesn’t have the time — or the guts — to explore it.

Women such as Shelley who embrace — and fight for — traditional gender roles hardly need to be invented. She’s Phyllis Schlafly with a better wardrobe, a tradwife without the racist panic about White birthrates. If she lived in New York, she’d be a hit in the Dimes Square crowd, where converting to Catholicism is the hip move.

Women who choose traditionalism pose questions to which feminism hasn’t necessarily worked out the answers.

How can society move beyond the raw deal in which women are expected to pull in salaries and manage households? Does treating the domestic sphere as less worthy than professional life denigrate femininity? And how much can ordinary people be expected to cast off everything they’ve been taught to believe — and to value — in order to personally participate in remaking the world?

Liberation movements tend to market themselves as the key to happiness, and with good reason. For a tiny minority of people, suffering for a cause might be the selling point. But promising a long stretch of hard work and alienation before the good stuff isn’t exactly a mainstream recruiting pitch.

As the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone wrote in “The Dialectic of Sex,” “Many women give up in despair: if that’s how deep it goes they don’t want to know.”

Or, as the traitorous rebel in “The Matrix” explains when he asks to be reintegrated into a mass, machine-generated delusion, “I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious,” he muses. But after nine years of living in terror and discomfort, “You know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”

That’s what feminism — as well as the movements against climate change and racism — is up against. “Don’t Worry Darling” would have been genuinely shocking if it confronted viewers with the temptations of ignorance, not just its costs.

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