Written by Alice Lowe and Steve Oram
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Fans of Ben Wheatley’s brutally tense thriller Kill List may be a bit surprised by his new film, Sightseers. It is a film without tension and without terror. It’s just a charming little comedy about life, love, and serial murder.
Tina (Alice Lowe) has been with her boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram) for about three months when they decide to take a nice little holiday into the British countryside. Britain is not like the USA, covered in malls and garish theme parks – a trip like this will mostly the two of them in Chris’s camper (or, as the Brits call it, “caravan”), taking in such oddities as the Pencil Museum or the history of tram buses. It also means running into other tourists: people who are rude, self-satisfied, or just plain weird, and don’t mind imposing those qualities upon all around them. Chris’s reponse to their intruding presence? Why, slaughter, of course.
The only way that Sightseers works is if Lowe and Oram have flawless chemistry, which they do because they’ve been performing the characters for years on stage (they used material from that show to co-write the movie as well as a failed television pilot). They have that relationship which is just starting to move from “wildly physical” to “getting accustomed to one another” and may be heading towards “taking the other person for granted” over the course of the film. They’re funny with each other in that way new couples can be, corny and cheesy and not caring one bit who thinks so.
Chris and Tina have a good thing that is not so easily thrown away, which is a key detail as the killings escalate. The really cunning satire in Sightseers comes from the tough problem posed to Tina: even if her boyfriend has this dark side, is she really willing to ditch their good thing and go back to eating for one? And if she stays with him, is she doing it because they have something in common, or is she just pretending to share his interests? The fact that the “interests” in question involve serial murder is just a funny way to highlight a relationship problem that might be hard to define otherwise.
Sightseers delivers its black comedy via unusually gory murders. The violence isn’t as bad as a Saw film – in fact, Danny Boyle’s recent film Trance is more gruesome – but it’s enough to break the comfortable lull of a vacation through the countryside. This is important because it will draw laughs from those who know it’s coming, and draw shocked surpise from those who don’t. Both of those reactions serve to remind the audience that a line has been crossed, the social contract breached in a way that goes beyond mere rudeness.
In that way, Wheatley builds a funny, clever take on the romantic comedy which isn’t scary, but is unsettling for how much we see of ourselves in it. The only thing keeping the average audience member from becoming these characters is a level of trust that human beings can live and love together without killing each other for such petty reasons as rudeness and inconvenience. Thus, the best moment of Sightseers might be its final scene, in which the flaw of building a relationship upon murder is exposed: if the rest of society can’t trust them, why would they trust each other?