The last few scenes of writer/director Ben Wheatley’s ‘Kill List’ are such a whirlwind of revelations and unexpected violence that it somewhat overshadows the rest of the film. In watching ‘Sightseers,’ Wheatley’s latest film, I was reminded just how keenly the director observes the frustrations of relationships and the quirks of people who think they’re more clever than they really are.
‘Sightseers,’ a bloody, satirical road trip comedy opens in the heart of Mike Leigh country. Alice Lowe is Tina, a nice, mousy 34 year old with a sing-songy voice who lives with her overbearing mother. Despite protestations she’s leaving for a vacation with her new boyfriend Chris (played by the red bearded Steve Oram, who looks like a puffier Richard Thompson.) Mom’s still upset about the death of her little terrier, and in a last attempt to keep Tina from leaving she calls her a murderer. “It was an accident,” the daughter explains, for probably the thousandth time. “Well, so were you,” Mom fires back with shocking brutality.
This leads to one of a few wonderful musical montages, as Tina and Chris hit the countryside. Their first stop is an outdoor museum for restored trams and streetcars. Our pair are dorks (Tina is attractive, but dresses like a frump) but they are sweet and definitely care for one another. When Chris sees a piggish litterbug, however, it is the first clue that he has. . .anger issues.
It’s not a few moments later until Chris runs the litterbug over with his camper, and we’re never quite sure if it was an accident or not. This triggers a murder spree as the pair hit a number of natural and cultural places of interest.
Similar to Bobcat Goldthwaite’s ‘God Bless America,’ Chris’ victims are all jerks and scum who we all wish would go away, so there is a certain fantasy fulfillment in watching these scenes. The first twist comes when Chris goes apes— on a guy who actually asks Tina to clean up some litter. This is the infraction that got the story moving, but Chris sees in this man a patrician picking on the working class and still feels validated in bashing his head in.
The trash in question is actually that of a stolen dog, that Tina may actually believe is her mother’s dog reincarnated. (We also get a flashback to how that original pooch died, and it is hysterical.) Tina, who began the film sweetly, slowly gets unhinged before our eyes. It happens subtly, but eventually she starts to act childlike and frenzied, until she wants in on some killing, too.
‘Sightseers’ is by no means a ‘Badlands’ or even a ‘Natural Born Killers.’ Our pair really just want a nice quiet holiday walking around ruins in the muddy parts of Great Britain. Their trail of dead is less a sociological statement than the physical embodiment of their inability to have a communicative relationship. These are socially stunted people, adult children, really, who want certain things – specific sex acts, a career as a writer – but have no idea why they want these things.
It sounds a little heavy, but it is actually rather funny. ‘Sightseers’ is wall-to-wall throwaway gags, many of them specific to the oddball locations. (Best pencil museum scene ever.) Every stop on their tour goes horribly wrong in some way until Tina and Chris just become train wrecks and their fate becomes clear.
Miraculously, I don’t think ‘Sightseers’ glamorized violence. If anything, it shows violence and insensitivity as the domain of dummies, worthy of a healthy mix of pity and scorn.‘Sightseers’ premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.