It’s impossible to begin this review without mentioning a journalist’s favourite Hollywood trope: actors behaving badly. A little like The Room, Olivia Wilde air-quote description of ex-lead Shia LaBeouf’s ‘combative’ persona, to her alleged on-set screaming match with Florence Pugh and the final, tantalizing rumour that she took more than one direction with Harry Styles (read: up and down) conjures up a broken set worth its own Disaster Artist treatment. Still – if Roman Polanski can get away with worse, then the only problem this movie has is dragging out a strong premise and then ruining it.
So let’s start with the positives. The party begins with Ray Charles rasping in the background, Jack (Harry Styles) dancing badly, kissing even worse, and an awkward gang of 50s housewives and breadwinners gawking between them. Visually, Libatique delivers a movie that looks good paused, but stumbles in its early transitions – jumps into muscle cars that feel a bit too swerved, a breakfast transition that takes a while to get interesting, and an overall kinetic sense that something’s not quite on the money. Coupled with strangely millennial dialogue between 50s housewife Alice (Florence Pugh) and Bunny (Olivia Wilde), that off-kilter sense is about as surprising as a 50s picket fence flick that doesn’t run with the ‘so pretty it’s dystopian’ angle.
Still, as Jack cavorts to Victory Headquarters (the company that pays for every pixel perfect inch they live in) there’s an undeniable sense of intrigue. The first symptom is Maggie (Kiki Layne) who isn’t exactly subtle about the danger: hovering ominously by washing lines, gazing into the distance, and then barking out ‘Why are we here?’ during a picnic. Then as Jack’s boss Frank (Chris Pine ) delivers a confidence man response about free choice, the danger of chaos, and the power of a family man, we get the classic 50s horror with a Pleasantville subtext. Here – of course – is our villain: the snake oil salesman, the upper-class Charles Manson, putting the housewives under lock and key while the hypnotized husbands drive out to work for him.
It’s an uninspired enough premise, but gets a boost with a second additional mystery. What are the ‘progressive materials’ the husbands are working on at Victory Headquarters? Venturing into the desert, Alice touches the HQ and descends into a hallucinatory psychosis. With these beats, Libatique hits more highs and lows – conjuring up haunting imagery that never gets a satisfying explanation by the movie’s climax beyond the sense of easy, neat visuals that’s Oscar-baiting trailer material. As Alice’s stretched out psychosis takes over the second act, it’s accompanied by the sounds of a female chorus that resembles an orgasm meshed into a washing machine. Its romp into lobotomies and robotic interactions could begin to feel all Stepford Wives – except Harry Styles’ portrayal as a grown-up husband would be more believable if you typed 80085135 into a calculator. Told he’s hopelessly ‘special’ and chosen by his cohorts, it’s hard not to imagine Wilde cooing over his stroppy teenage delivery – particular lows being a dinner table cunnilingus that leads to a climax faker than browsing Pornhub on the silver screen.
By the time the bloated second act wears itself down and Alice – the only interesting character – is reduced to near-madness, the twist that they live in an Incel Matrix raises more questions than it answers. While it poses a stylish question about how similar the alt-right trad obsessed young men are to the nuclear families they want to emulate, it rushes through the reveal rather than exploring the next premise – and ends up poking more holes in the plot in the process. And beyond its issues with believability, it raises an even more pressing question about the twist’s originality: why didn’t any of these awkward male losers see this quest in Fallout 3?