I grew up in a quaint coastal town in England. The sort of place that gets referred to as picturesque. Nice to visit, interminable to live in. In this town was a National Trust shop, which sold the usual suspects for a place of its kind. Wooden crafts, tea towels with maps on. And t-shirts with giant stencils of animals on them. The kind that’re so thick they won’t bend. Great ugly things with pictures of wolves or owls on them. And for years I wondered, “who would buy such a thing?” Sightseers, gratefully, answers this question. As well as showing what else such a person is capable of spending £24 on.
The latest feature from Ben Wheatley, Sightseers is a comedy about a couple who tour English beauty spots in a caravan, and kill people. That sentence alone should be a strong indicator of whether this is going to be your thing or not. The comedy here is delightfully wicked. If you can’t find humour in blasé acts of cruelty and misfortune, nor the ridicule of the ordinary, then please do yourself a favour and leave well alone. But then, if you can’t find humour in these places, you’re probably a Daily Mail reader. And Chris (Steve Oram) isn’t a fan of them.
Chris is a seemingly pleasant man in his thirties who is taking his new girlfriend Tina (Alice Lowe) on a holiday around some of his favourite sites. For Tina this represents a chance to escape the domineering emotional blackmail of her ailing mother, which, one suspects, she has lived with her entire life. Tina swings from endearingly naive to worryingly backward in her perceptions of the world, whilst Chris, it soon transpires, doesn’t suffer fools gladly. In fact, he is quite ready to cause mortal injury, so long as he can justify it. And it doesn’t take much to fall foul of Chris’ judgement. Irreverent littering may even be enough.
This barmy mix of the quaint and endearing with the grim and macabre makes for a tonally queasy 90 minutes, but the film is all the better for it. Wheatley is of course no stranger to off-kilter meshing of sensibilities. His last film, 2011’s Kill List, is notorious for it. In fact Sightseers proves his last effort was no fluke; Wheatley is firmly in his stride, and his Machiavellian presence in British cinema is more than welcome. Undoubtedly Sightseers shoots for the comedy moments more directly than Kill List. This is a lighter affair, looking to elicit a guilty laugh more than a terrified shriek, yet still liable to set you wincing more than once.
So, whilst Wheatley gets the chance to paint his canvas sporadically with his already-trademark grue, Sightseers is more interested in tickling your funny bones, something it does frequently, either through absurd exchanges of dialogue (“You look better in that dress than your mum did” / “I’m not wearing any underwear”) or with splendid dashes of physical comedy. Look out for a fellow named Martin trying to climb inside an absurd self-designed vehicle with dignity.
And though Chris and Tina’s travels bring them into contact with a range of characters, this is ostensibly a two-hander, and as such lives or dies with its leads. Fortunately Oram and Lowe are terrific. They ought to be; they wrote the film. These characters, like this entire production, are obviously demented labours of love. Despite the apparent cold and drizzle, you can sense that the makers of Sightseers probably couldn’t believe their luck – their job is to make films like this. Good for them. It all could’ve ended up a little incoherent and indulgent (the weaker stretches of Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip spring to mind). Fortunately, what we have here is an excellent piece of particularly British comedy.
And Sightseers is a particularly British movie. An odd sort of love letter to our parochial traditions, our curmudgeonly fascination with caves and tram cars and campsites. Mockery is the best form of flattery they say, and what shines out from Wheatley’s film is a strange celebration of our heritage, albeit through the twisted eyes of its wonky protagonists.
It’s also a sharply focused dig at how serial killers have become glamourised, especially in US entertainment where they’re two-a-penny. Yet even as we’ve become accustomed to them, they’ve never been quite this deliciously mundane. Chris is a pedant whose pet hates spur acts of cruelty, but, like the best of observational comedy, they’re wrought funny through our… well… understanding. I wonder, chillingly, how many of us would like to be able to act as Chris does if we could get away with it half as conveniently as he does.
And are Chris’ reasons really reasons or excuses? Either way, they slowly lure Tina in, until she is a monster outside of his control. The relationship falters, they struggle, yet strangely you want them to make it. This is surely the weirdest romance of the year.
Full credit to Wheatley, Oram and Lowe for juggling such diverse elements so well. Sightseers feels effortless. Wheatley is on a roll, churning out a movie a year (his next is already well on the way). This is nothing but good news. He’s
becoming become a name to watch. Watch Sightseers. You’ll either turn off and miss out, or have an hour and a half’s ridiculous pleasure at the expense of others. And in my joyfully blackened heart, I know which I’d prefer to do.