Returning to recurring themes explored in previous works, Sightseers (2012) – Ben Wheatley’s third feature – sees the director teaming up with comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram to depict a tale of soured idealism, taking his proclivity for kitchen sink neurosis on a blood-spattered tour of the Yorkshire Dales. Having established an aptitude for meeting character-based social realism with pitch black comedy with the celebrated Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011), Wheatley continues his incursion into the inner workings and various implications of bleak violence, only here it’s supplemented by a darkly comic edge.
Oram plays Chris, a would-be novelist and passive philosopher who decides to take his new girlfriend Tina (Lowe) on an “erotic odyssey” to the north of England in a caravan. Impressionable and emotionally vulnerable, Tina has lead a life of muted reserve constantly stifled by her agoraphobic, deeply pessimistic mother (excellently played by Eileen Davis), so Chris represents a stimulating change of pace for her dowdy surroundings.
As soon as their romantic holiday commences, however, events conspire to expose Chris’ fragile composure and deep-seated rage, with picturesque tourist locations offering backdrops to his escalating indignation and disillusionment. He’s a pathological murderer hell-bent on purging the world of rule-breakers, and as his fraught rationalisations begin to stack up, he entices Tina into partaking in a cross-country killing spree. Wheatley’s Sightseers has the difficult task of succeeding two near perfect examples of the confluence of murky comedy and realism, and he does a good job at transplanting Lowe and Oram’s long-gestating story and characters into a brisk 88-minute feature.
Yet, however much Sightseers has the estimable gall of riffing on the American homicidal road trip sub-genre (Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde being clear influences) whilst creating an outré transposition of Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May (1976), the blending of mostly tepid laughs and bloody violence rarely feels organic. Intentionally episodic, the string of murders committed by the two hopelessly misguided holidaymakers – who believe what they are doing is in keeping with the preservation of their newfound idyll – are indeed humorous, but they serve as metaphors to the roadblocks of a relationship shared by fundamentally unlikeable people.
As a horror-comedy with clearly defined characters embracing their inner psychopathy, which as a simulacrum is juxtaposed by the serene and expansive unnoticed beauty of rural Britain, Sightseers works brilliantly; but where the film fails is in its denial of properly getting under the skin of its conflicted protagonists. The storyline was years in the making and initially planned as a TV sketch show, and it’s a shame it was denied the longevity it really deserves.