Blonde, Don’t Worry Darling
Blonde and Don’t Worry Darling in theaters on Sept. 23

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Two new films follow the trauma endured by young women in midcentury America. Neither woman fully grasps what they must face, and struggles to find meaning in a system designed to rob them of any agency. Stylized cinematic tools are meant to help us empathize with these women, except only one of these films has any success in this approach.

By now, Don’t Worry Darling is better known for its behind-the-scenes drama than the actual film, a high-concept sci-fi thriller about a housewife unknowingly trapped in a dystopia. Middling and tedious, it aspires for meaning it never achieves and struggles to connect surreal imagery to its premise. In stark contrast, the new Marilyn Monroe fever dream Blonde is a work of steady, inexorable power. If Don’t Worry Darling is a thriller that unintentionally fails to produce any suspense, then Blonde is a horror film that is purposefully never scary.

When we meet Alice (Florence Pugh), the protagonist of Darling, she leads a life of domesticity and comfort. A housewife in the manufactured suburb of Victory, Alice is married to Jack (Harry Styles), who works on the mysterious “Victory Project,” along with all the other husbands in town. Over the course of the film, director Olivia Wilde (who also co-stars) starts to suggest that something is wrong in Victory. Jack starts the film as a devoted husband, only to become stranger, growing more possessive. Vague suspicions grow more acute for Alice, leading to revelations that shake her entire reality.

Andrew Dominik, who directed Blonde and adapted his script from a Joyce Carol Oates novel, wastes no time in suggesting something is wrong in the young life of Marilyn Monroe (first known as Norma Jeane Mortenson). As a child, her mentally unstable mother (a scene-stealing Julianne Nicholson) would fixate on a portrait in their shabby home, claiming the man in the photo was her father. Her fixation leads to a stunning sequence, one where Norma Jeane’s mother drives into a wildfire to find this mystery man. Dominik films primarily from the girl’s perspective, creating the painful tension that rises when an innocent feels unearned trust toward an adult who does not deserve it, even as the world crashes around them. Blonde maintains that tension when adult Norma Jeane (Ana de Armas) becomes a megastar and acutely aware—and resigned—to the reality that no one truly cares about her.

Before anyone saw either film, both got attention for their depiction of sex. Wilde discussed a scene where Jack performs oral sex on Alice, noting her commitment to showing women’s pleasure on screen, while Dominik refused to edit his sex scene even after it received a NC-17 rating. Although Blonde is frequently explicit, it eschews eroticism and is never lurid for its own sake. There is a disturbing early scene where Monroe steps into an audition for producer Darryl F. Zanuck (David Warshofsky), and he wordlessly rapes her. Dominik fixates on de Armas’ face during the assault because her point of view is what matters, not the perpetrator’s. He captures her physical and emotional pain, and keeps the camera on her as she leaves Zanuck’s office in a traumatized daze. In one of several cruel ironies, Monroe must sit next to Zanuck during several film premieres.

Blonde can be harrowing or relentless, and yet it is always with purpose. In visceral ways, Dominik wants to disabuse us from Monroe the icon, and see what she sacrificed so we could see her as a legend. The film implicates the audience because the audience, like her husbands Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), regard her as a symbol to own—not a woman with whom to build a life. That should be the feeling Wilde conjures in her film, and yet she lacks the skill and commitment to go down that painful path. Her cast is similarly not up to task: Pugh acts circles around Styles, who attempts to conjure turmoil that is never convincing enough. To watch Styles is a bit like watching a high school athlete stumble through the fall play: pretty, but flat.

Dominik and de Armas, on the other hand, are at the peak of their powers. Their skills as a director and performer, respectively, are the only things that keep Blonde from devolving into misery porn. His camera, leaning into impressionistic hallucinations, eschews establishing shots for heightened subjectivity. It splits the difference between black and white or color photography, with angles and aspect ratios that get us to see and feel what Monroe experienced as she was prodded, celebrated, and abused. What makes de Armas’ performance so fascinating—aside from her uncanny ability to look and sound like Monroe—is when she breaks the illusion. In the two key moments where Monroe stands up for herself, de Armas drops the imitative part of her role and returns to her Cuban accent. Oates’ novel takes liberties with Monroe’s life, and so must the film, so it is as if de Armas wants self-determination for Monroe that she rarely had. She reminds us that this project asks a great deal from her, as well.

Many early critiques of Blonde say it’s too reductive, imagining Monroe as only a sex pot with daddy issues and a desire for children. The film indeed does show that—the way de Armas calls her husbands “daddy” is always unnerving—although Dominik also leaves room to depict Monroe as an intelligent, keenly self-aware woman because showing additional facets of her life compounds its tragedy. In one of the film’s kindest scenes, Monroe accidentally seduces Miller through psychological insight he would seek in his entire career as a playwright. DiMaggio physically abused Monroe, but first he spoke to her with genuine curiosity. Contradictions are the point, including her regret and anguish over two pregnancies she terminated (in the film’s single misstep, Dominik includes a dialogue scene between Monroe and her unborn fetus). Lone flaw notwithstanding, his film achieves consistent control, a quality that eludes Wilde.

Nightmarish logic is a hard thing to show, which is why there is only one David Lynch and countless dream sequences that are too simple or literal. Don’t Worry Darling has some clever images, like when Alice is nearly crushed by her house or her reflection stops reflecting and literally looks at her. They are well-crafted, but to what end? It is unclear how Wilde’s repetitive middle hour, one where Alice’s nightmare bleeds into her waking life, connects to the film’s central thesis. It is a message in search of a story, whereas form and purpose are in sync through Blonde’s considerable runtime (Don’t Worry Darling is the shorter film, but feels longer).

Housewives and celebrities were two of the most acceptable vocations for women in the 1950s and early 1960s. No doubt Wilde and Dominik would agree that progress has been made since then, and yet the male gaze—the impulse, followed by desire and need to possess—still lurks among men who witlessly abuse power by default. Such an insight is simple to understand, but the full, stifling weight behind it is more difficult to fully conjure. Blonde achieves that in a way Don’t Worry Darling never does, which is why, in the years after we forget the controversy surrounding both films, only Dominik’s anti-biopic will be remembered as a sinister, heartbreaking masterpiece.

Don’t Worry Darling and Blonde arrive in theaters on Sept. 23.