After a career directing TV, Ben Wheatley made his first feature Down Terrace (2009), an understated comedy about a criminal clan, and followed it up with the horror genre mash-up Kill List (2011). His third feature, Sightseers, is a brutal black comedy about romantic misfits.
It opens with cosseted misfit Tina (Alice Lowe) meticulously mapping a road trip she is about to take with her first boyfriend, Chris (Steve Oram). Still living at home in the Midlands, 34-year-old Tina is shackled to her manipulative, hypochondriac mother, Carol (Eileen Davies), who is not about to let go easily. As Tina’s departure nears, and recently redundant, affable nerd Chris checks off Tina’s packing on his clip board, Carol’s symptoms worsened and she plays up her grief over the recent death of their dog in a freak knitting needle accident to prey on Tina’s guilt.
With Chris’s caravan out front and his engine running, ready to give Tina a tour of his world, Carol barks bitterly though the open window, “You’ll be back!” “Yes, I will Mum, in a week,” Tina retorts. This deadpan opening sets up the banal, provincial world and captures the psychotic relationship between mother and daughter brilliantly.
Heading off on an odyssey of English attractions, the couple reach the quaint Crich Tramway Museum, a period village that promises family fun, but events conspire against them. Their dream caravan holiday takes a very wrong turn after anally-retentive sociopath Chris accidentally kills a yobbish litterbug. Continuing on to the eccentric, historic, and beautiful destinations of the lovers’ route, an epidemic of violent deaths ensues amid campsite class war and confrontations with countryside ramblers and drunken hen party pranks.
Wicked and perversely funny, Sightseers juxtaposes British realism and comedy of embarrassment with the American myth of the outlaw couple on a crime spree. The script, written by lead actors Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, with additional material by Amy Jump, provides many wonderfully droll and mundane observations. After meeting at a regular London comedy night, Lowe and Oram developed the characters while trawling their shared Midlands backgrounds and memories of family holidays. Originally conceived as a television sitcom, the material was considered too dark to commission. Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) encouraged them to rewrite it as a feature that was developed with the help of Film 4.
In her supporting performance, Eileen Davies is wonderfully restrained and menacing as Tina’s mother. The relationship between Chris and Tina, both brilliantly played by the writers, drives the film. After finding one another, Tina is desperate that their first holiday together is a success. Liberated from caring for her mother, she has prepared for her seduction, bringing along her hand-knitted crotchless knickers for nights of passion rocking the caravan, and so she’s willing to overlook the odd killing, determined it won’t ruin their holiday. While aspiring writer Chris romantically casts her as his muse, she encourages Chris to “write it all down” after another killing. Empowered, Tina turns from incredulous to complicit and active. As the bodies stack up, both Chris and Tina must make compromises to stay together. The dark, twisted humor and exaggerated psychological integrity root the action.
Laurie Rose, Wheatley’s regular collaborator, shot on location in chronological order and captures the scenes in a naturalistic documentary style that underscores the deadpan timing. The use of anamorphic widescreen references the American genre and renders the beauty of the remote English landscapes in worsening weather as their relationship develops.
Production design by Jane Levick and the costuming by Rosa Dias beautifully recreate the sense of a world and characters trapped in time. The sparing use of music, deployed with irony, underscores this idea. Soft Cell’s 1980’s version of Tainted Love erupts with the opening title as Chris and Tina set off while Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s The Power of Love, from the same period, plays out hilariously in the final scene. Jim William’s provides an economical, hauntingly melancholic score that is overlaid with lurid, Foley sound effects.
Sightseers has been billed as a uniquely British blend of excruciating comedy of embarrassment, and pitched as Natural Born Killers meets Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May. Another tonal comparison for the American viewer is photographer Cindy Sherman’s only feature, Office Killer (1997), in which a mousy magazine proof reader accidentally kills one of her co-workers and, after her role is downsized to working at home, she proceeds to bump off a few more to populate her macabre home office and cure her loneliness. Also original, absurd, and ultra-violent, Sightseers is rich in quotable lines and immediately re-watchable.