Written by: Alice Lowe & Steve Oram, Amy Jump (additional material)
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, and Eileen Davies
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"So, have you had a nice holiday?"
Sightseers is a great film that zigs whenever you expect it to zag. The third film from Ben Wheatley, it continues the director’s exploration of violence within mundane confines, this time taking his act on the road for a blood-soaked caravanning trip through pastoral England. More of an accessible (if not pitch black) comedy than his previous efforts, Sightseers is nonetheless a vicious piece of work with a relentless bite and a willingness to keep its audience on its toes. Just when you think it’s as fucked-up as it can possibly be, it takes another wildly dark turn and expects you to keep laughing. What’s worse is that you don’t feel too uncomfortable laughing at it. Sightseers is perhaps the funniest film about spree killing imaginable.
Tina (Alice Lowe) is an average girl, if not a sort of sexually repressed one, having lived with an overbearing mother (Eileen Davies) for most of her life (even into adulthood, it would seem). When she meets Chris (Steve Oram), she’s head over heels: not only is he an exceedingly nice guy—he’s an exceedingly nice guy with aspirations of being a writer. Naturally, Tina’s mother dislikes him immediately and disapproves of her going on a countryside trip with a man she believes to be some sort of lunatic. Once the couple hits the road and Chris confirms these suspicions by callously plowing into a mouth-breather in a parking lot, it looks as if Sightseers has delivered its one joke and it set to hammer upon it repeatedly as the two continue to trek down the road.
Instead, this is just the beginning of a long, strange, deranged trip into a British countryside that yields carnage and incisive commentary in equal measure. Each stop for Chris and Tina sees them plunge deeper into the former’s sadistic work, a process Wheatley plays for laughs at every turn: when Chris passes off his splattering of the poor bastard—who irritated him because he didn’t properly discard a candy wrapper—as an accident, his wry smile behind Tina’s back proves otherwise. At first, it seems as if Wheatley is content with producing a screwy riff on a Lifetime movie theme, as poor Tina has no idea that her Mr. Perfect is a psychopath who’s already plotting his next murder when they bump into another couple. Even when that couple’s dog—which looks exactly like the one Tina killed during a knitting accident—turns up without its owners, she’s not the least bit suspicious.
Or perhaps she is, and she doesn’t care anyway. It’s here that Sightseers really begins to veer wildly: once she snuffs out Chris’s deception, she’s weirdly into it, and the film shifts to a hilarious psycho-couple-on-the-road movie, sort of like Natural Born Killers but with more British politeness. Lowe and Oram (who wrote the script with Amy Jump) honed in on this routine over seven years, and it’s refined here on-screen with a pair of tremendous performances. As Chris, Oram is fiendishly charismatic: capable of putting on sociable airs in public, he hides a mean shiftiness behind his eyes that reveals itself in private moments. His ability to remain so warm and seemingly good-hearted is more chilling than his fits of violence, which are the work of a bemused, detached sociopath.
Sightseers lives and dies by Lowe’s turn, however. If Chris comes to us a fully-formed, seasoned maniac, then Tina is something of an apprentice and a lover all at once. Her transformation from quiet spinster to murderous accomplice plays out in small gestures, such as the surprisingly resigned look on her face once she discovers Chris’s secret. What we see unfold isn’t a complete transformation but rather a mix of exhilaration, anxiety, and confusion that washes over Tina. Suddenly unloosed for the first time in her life (sexually and otherwise), she’s not quite sure what to do with herself—only that she seems to like it very much, even when it involves dumping a bride-to-be off of a bridge, splattering her brains on the rocks below.
She and Chris make for a great couple when they’re on the same page—they fist bump at the news that their evidence tampering has worked and banter about how homicide is actually good for the planet—but she’s totally compelling on her own and provides an in-road for Wheatley’s preoccupation with violence as a reflective tool. What does it say about the mundanity of suburban life that Tina only now feels alive in courting death? More, what does it say about our expectations for women when Chris begins to harshly judge her for indulging in the same violence he’s gleaned pleasure from for years? In revolting against genre expectations, Tina also upends a sense of decorum, be it rooted in the Great Chain of Being or the Victorian obsession with everything remaining in place.
Chris’s protests are of course absurd in light of the situation, but he’s an absurd figure who soon grows into an avatar of British haughtiness and hypocrisy. His assertion that his work is somehow orderly or ordained (“he’s a Daily Mail reader,” he offers in justification after bludgeoning a guy’s face to a pulp) recalls the sort of moral superiority that led to films like Sightseers being banned across England for decades. Wheatley and company haven’t just constructed Chris to be a perfect guy hoarding dark secrets—they’ve fashioned him as a façade of British civility, one that pointedly crumbles as it heads into the primal, pastoral haunts of ancient lands, where both shamans and tourist traps endure. He especially seems invested in keeping a conservative order of things: one should dispose of their trash and uphold old customs, even if it means resorting to homicide. Simply killing for pleasure—or, perhaps, a woman even killing at all—is somehow ghastly.
Learning just how much of a creep Chris is represents one of the many journeys on the sidewinding road that is Sightseers. Its sharp, tight script translates to the screen with a bustling, rapid-fire energy reminiscent of producer Edgar Wright’s work. Had Wheatley simply hung back and allowed his terrific performers to deliver their witty material, I imagine it would still land, but under his direction, it absolutely blisters. Sightseers is the stuff of glib splatstick, but Wheatley manages to stay just below that line: the violence here is always just so savage and unflinching that you give the slightest of pause before howling at the droll, absurd fallout. Likewise, this vicious jaunt is often an intoxicating trip through gorgeous, travelogue scenery as England’s green hills and blue skies roll by, masking the malicious barbarity at the film’s center. Violent outbursts are captured with dazzling style and accompanied by cool needle-drops to allow the audience to revel in these unhinged exploits, much like Tina herself.
One of the more stunning bits features John Hurt reciting William Blake’s “Jerusalem” as Chris pummels a victim. Acting perhaps as the film’s conscience, the interlude juxtaposes Blake’s hope for a civilized England with uncivilized imagery that suggests Christ’s grace will never reach these badlands. By heading out into the country with Chris, Alice not only finds herself but also Britain’s dark heart. All she can do in the end is offer a look of sly indifference that also reveals Sightseers’ own twisted, morbid soul.
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