Following his irreverent take on the gangster genre with 2009’s Down Terrace and last year’s shot-in-the-arm psychological horror Kill List, director Ben Wheatley is fast becoming the most exciting name in British indie cinema. Teaming up with sketch comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram on his third feature, Sightseers, the filmmaker brings his unique sensibilities — kitchen sink realism, off-the-cuff shooting style, and pitch black humour — to this wickedly dark story of a quietly desperate couple who inadvertently pick up a taste for murder on a caravan trip through the countryside. The results are every bit as excruciatingly awkward and deadpan hilarious as you might expect, and this is Wheatley’s funniest and best film yet.
Sightseers begins with sheltered knitting enthusiast Tina (Lowe) being scolded by her domineering mother (Eileen Davies) — who seemingly disapproves of everything and is still mourning the loss of their beloved dog, Poppy — and longing to escape. Her new boyfriend Chris (Oram) — a frustrated writer — arrives with plans to introduce her to his world on a caravan trip around the English countryside, which includes some incredibly tacky tourist attractions. However, the trip is barely underway when an obnoxious litterbug at the Crich Tramway Museum incenses the rather prickish Chris. Later he distractedly backs over the man with the caravan, killing him in a gruesome fashion that is effectively played for (guilty) laughs. Once the couple discover how easy it was to get away with, they quickly develop a taste for murder and begin to off anyone who brushes them the wrong way. A gnawing tension develops each time a new stranger is encountered as this homicidal pattern becomes more apparent, and the humour lies in the unlikely juxtaposition between the pair’s tacky ordinariness and the increasingly crazed crimes they commit.
Terrence Malick’s influential Badlands and Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May are clearly touchstones here (there’s also traces of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I), but Sightseers manages to feel fresh and original due in part to Wheatley’s visual inventiveness and obvious flair for offbeat storytelling, but chiefly because Lowe and Oram’s characters and dialogue are so terrific. This set-up could have easily made for a quirky one-joke film, but it’s thanks to the stars/co-writers that it really works. Lowe and Oram have been living with these characters for years — they originally tried pitching the story to TV networks, who deemed it “too dark”, eventually bringing it to Executive Producer (and Hot Fuzz director) Edgar Wright — and despite their idiosyncrasies, Tina and Chris feel like real, fully-fleshed people as a result and the performances are effortless. Both comedians are relative unknowns outside of Britain — Lowe may be familiar to fans of the genius cult comedy series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace — but you can expect to see a lot more of them following this impressive breakthrough.
This film is Wheatley’s most restrained and mainstream effort yet, but fans ought not to worry as the uncompromising auteur still manages to apply his trademark violence and style here. One gag in particular — a flashback scene depicting the death of Poppy — is one of the most inventive and memorable of the year, while another featuring an oversized pencil drew some big laughs. The soundtrack also provides laughs with the ironic inclusion of two versions of ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘Season of the Witch’. Wheatley can’t help but force his obsession with pagan surrealism into several unnerving dream sequences, but these visually fascinating scenes work unexpectedly well. The remarkably intense and diabolical Kill List lost me with its infuriating climax, but there are no such problems here. There are some minor pacing issues along the way, but this is otherwise a masterfully crafted and surprisingly consistent film that should serve as an ideal entry point to Wheatley’s deranged universe for newcomers. With a brilliantly observed script and two great leads at his disposal, Wheatley has delivered a terrific black comedy of rare intelligence and vigour — certainly one of the best to come out of England in several years — and it cements his position as one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation.
Sightseers is currently screening at Rialto and Academy Cinemas, and you can win tickets here. Watch the trailer below.