Ben Wheatley wowed and baffled audiences with his thriller horror Kill List, an ethereal, atmospheric and very stylish tale of contract killers caught up with a mysterious cult. It also announced Wheatley as director of real substance and one in possession of a masterful eye. It might come as a surprise then that Wheatley would choose to follow Kill List with a pitch black, very British comedy, a tongue in cheek tale of murderous caravaners bludgeoning their way through the picturesque English countryside. But we should be thankful that he did, because Sightseers is a rare beast, a gorgeous, utterly bonkers and fiercely original breath of fresh air, a film brimming with self-conscious joy that is a pleasure to behold.
Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (a sublime Alice Lowe) are our eponymous odd couple. Tina is a sheltered, slightly awkward waif, who lives with her barmy mother. She’s in thrall to geeky Chris, a man who is determined to expand her horizons by showing her his favourite sites, which include the likes of the Crich Tramway Museum and the Keswick Pencil Museum. Ostensibly they’re a boring, inoffensive duo, but it’s not long before Chris reveals his edgy side.
A chance encounter with a litter lout, whom Chris delightfully labels a ‘pig in clothes’, escalates remarkably quickly and descends into very bloody murder. Oram and Lowe’s sparse, naturalistic and very dry script ensure that such an incident is treated with nonchalance rather than horror, instead acting to liberate and inspire Chris who takes advantage of his muse Tina’s naivety and vulnerability.
And so, as their sojourn continues, Chris becomes more abrasive and blatant in his contempt for others, indulging in violence to satisfy his bloody disdain for anyone who deigns to cross him. When he utters the words ‘we don’t care about being fair, we just care about being happy’, it’s obvious that he’s fundamentally unhinged, living out some sort of bizarre fantasy.
Wheatley’s elegant photography meanwhile forces an uncomfortable juxtaposition of the banality of their everyday, the beauty of nature and mindless ultraviolence, which is often brutal, serving to trivialise Chris’s actions and at a turn verge on the unnecessary. And it’s fairly obvious where Wheatley has drawn inspiration from, with hints of Natural Born Killers and Thelma & Louise apparent throughout.
That said, this is a very British love story that slowly unravels with an abundance of wit and lashings of pith. As Tina is gradually seduced by Chris’s ways and the couple apparently find common ground in meaningless murders and executions, it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in the sheer barminess of it all. Much of the credit must lie with Alice Lowe, who is superb, combining fallibility with a louche moral compass.
The shocking denouement meanwhile is all the more effective given is unexpectedness and the absurdity of all that has come before.
Sightseers is often hilarious, profoundly British, very dark and totally captivating. It’s expertly crafted, tonally spot on and chock full of charm. Wheatley might want to dial down his obsession with stark violence, but such is the mastery of Oram and Lowe’s script and performances that it fails to overshadow what is otherwise one of the funniest, most unique and unashamedly entertaining films of the year.