Note: Spoilers ahead for Don’t Worry Darling.
“If you have a problem with your third act, the real problem is in your first act.” – Billy Wilder
What’s inside Victory Headquarters? That’s the burning question Alice needs answered in Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial effort, isn’t it? That’s the place where all the secrets of this seemingly idyllic company town are hidden. It’s the one place the wives are forbidden to go to and all their husbands drive off to work in at the exact same time every morning. Alice races to get there in the climax, staying just ahead of Frank’s… goons? Simulations? Not sure…
What’s inside Victory Headquarters? At first, Alice doesn’t know and she doesn’t care. Life is perfect in Victory. Our passive heroine prepares a home-cooked dinner every evening, has a good rapport with all but one of her housewife neighbors, and has incredible sex with her husband every night. She seems to want for nothing. Remember The Truman Show? And how Truman Burbank’s stifled curiosity, his desire to travel to Fiji and reunite with the mysterious woman who almost told him the truth, was established early, so the audience had a clear emotional stake in what he was going through? That doesn’t really happen in Don’t Worry Darling. Alice doesn’t appear to have an initial driving motivation until a biplane crashes near the mountains, and she decides she has to find it, instead stumbling upon what she’s pretty sure is Victory Headquarters.
What’s inside Victory Headquarters? We won’t know for a frustratingly long time as we wait and wait and wait through scene after scene of Alice having weird hallucinations that don’t seem to mean all that much unless they involve Margaret. It’s not like Get Out, where the unnerving red flags either directly connect to the evil plot against Chris or are a darkly humorous commentary on modern upper-class white condescension. I know Don’t Worry Darling is “about” misogyny and men weaponizing toxic nostalgia against women… but what does that have to do with eggshells and Margaret appearing in a mirror? Or the random earthquakes? Where did that biplane even come from, and where did it go? Could they really not think of introducing a mechanism for Alice to venture out that paid off in some narratively meaningful way? What does any of this actually mean?
What’s inside Victory Headquarters? Joey was pretty intrigued by the search for this answer… at first. But I would posit the reason he was more baffled than satisfied by the time The Truth came out was not because of what the Big Reveals were, but when they were revealed and why. Imagine if, for example, Morpheus didn’t tell Neo what the Matrix was until a hundred minutes into The Matrix, and everything up to that point was an extended series of scenes where he experiences strange things as Thomas Anderson? Alice finding out that Victory is basically just the Matrix maintained by insecure men should have happened way earlier. By the halfway point at the latest. Instead, the narrative is in this dramaturgical holding pattern. Every minute that serves no purpose other than keeping us guessing as the movie spins its wheels is a minute Katie Silberman isn’t devoting to establishing any kind of conflict between Frank and Shelley, or a meaningful relationship between Alice and Margaret, or just… anything at all for Jack. Because she can’t do that without tipping her hand toward clarifying the big secret she’s hellbent on hiding from us for as long as possible. By the time Alice learns what Victory is and why she’s there, we’re already at the climax and are forced to race through character arcs that should have been fleshed out earlier.
What’s inside Victory Headquarters? Does it even matter? I am all for movies playing their cards close to the chest, but not if that’s the only thing they’ve got holding my attention. Not if all I’m doing is biding my time for you to tell me an answer that has no possible chance of being worth the wait because you didn’t bother constructing a meaningful story or interesting characters around the question. Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan? Who cares? Rey is a Palpatine? Wow, shocker, that means nothing to me. An evil wizard I don’t care about is actually some other evil wizard I also don’t care about? Gee, I can’t imagine why that franchise sputtered and died.
What’s inside Victory Headquarters? I’ll tell you what’s inside. It’s this:
It’s that stupid goddamned “Mystery Box” J.J. Abrams hyped up in the summer of 2008, and it might very well be one of the worst things that have taken hold of the entertainment industry in the 21st century. That poisonous attitude towards storytelling, treating crucial information as a prize at the bottom of a Crackerjack box, at the expense of developing your characters and getting your audience emotionally invested in what they’re seeing, is what sunk Don’t Worry Darling. It has sunk countless other movies that believed the key to keeping audiences engaged is promising a Big Reveal if you just keep watching and wondering what the hell is going on! Just a little while longer! You’ll see! And then you get the answer, and for some mysterious reason, you hardly remember anything about the movie the next morning.
The Mystery Box is no less artificial than the simulation Alice found herself trapped in. When stories can’t figure out how to properly dramatize their conflicts, if they don’t have all that much to say on their own, they break out the Mystery Box. They treat stories as puzzles to be “solved” instead of meaningful explorations of people’s emotions and experiences through this infinitely complicated phenomenon we call life.
Alice escaped the confines of Victory by the very end. Wilde, Silberman, and many other contemporary storytellers need to break out of the prison that is the Mystery Box.
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