If you haven’t noticed or haven’t been paying attention, writer/director Ben Wheatley has quickly become one of the most intriguing filmmakers working today (both are excusable by the way, since it wasn’t easy to find his previous flicks outside of the UK). After a career directing television, Wheatley burst into film with Down Terrace, a rather brilliant British crime comedy made for such a low budget that it was actually filmed in the home of the main cast members who weren’t even actors. Still, the movie established Wheatley as a cross between the naturalistic deadpan comedy of Mike Leigh and the harsh, emotional/physical violence of Alan Clarke. After that, Wheatley delivered the devastating hitman horror movie Kill List, which is so good that it shouldn’t even be discussed before viewing. For his third feature, Wheatley made Sightseers a deeply dark, strange, and hilarious movie pitched somewhere between Nuts in May and Badlands. It might not be his best movie, but that’s only because at this point that title is a toss up between all three of his excellent weirdo outings. If there was ever any doubt that Ben Wheatley was one of the best directors kicking around with a camera today, you can go ahead and forget that now.
The film stars British cult comedy actors Alice Lowe (Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace) and Steve Oram (It’s All Gone Pete Tong) as a happy couple on a rural British caravan trip. Oh wait, I forgot it was a Ben Wheatley movie for a second. Please allow me to rephrase. Oram stars as a psychotic caravan enthusiast who decides to dabble in serial killing while going on a trip with his new girlfriend: Lowe’s deeply repressed child/woman who has been so emotionally abused by her mother for so long that she is frighteningly easily manipulated. Oram’s killings are initially based only on minor annoyances from fellow vacationers. He lethally punishes people for minor sins like littering or being smug/successful. Initially shocked by her new lovers’ violent impulses, Lowe quickly joins in the fun and proves to be just as sociopathic and bloodthirsty as her boyfriend/murder-trainer. As their vacation/killing spree wears on the duo only seem to become more insane; however, the tone of their discussions and demeanor never stretches beyond passive-aggressive, boring, lower class camping claptrap. The result is a blood-soaked deadpan comedy that builds towards an increasing sense of dread and melancholy. It’s not exactly a deeply meaningful think piece, but it is a fascinating tone poem that nimbly mixes genres to keep the audience off balance and unprepared at all times.
Lowe and Oram initially developed their caravan murderers as sketch comedy characters and have been toying with them for years. It’s easy to see how they could be pitched in a slightly more broad manner that would turn Sightseers into a goofy comedy with a violent edge. However, after working with the characters for years and teaming up with Wheatley, the characters have matured into layered and genuine sociopaths. The comedy is still there and pitch black from start to finish. However, Wheatley plays the violence fairly straight. Sure, killing someone over littering is a funny concept and laughs come with it, but when the camera lingers on the gory remains just long enough to elicit chills, the tone changes drastically.
Delivering heavily improvised performances, Lowe and Oram step up their work to create characters worthy of the dramatic tone. Their characters are alternatingly heartbreaking and hilarious, leaving the audience in an awkward place where they are uncertain whether to love or loath the protagonists. In the end, they feel like a pleasant couple who you might awkwardly chat with at a camping site without suspicion and yet beneath those thinly layered polite veneers lies genuine psychopaths. Wheatley shoots it all in his typical style, combining handheld naturalism with stylized set pieces when the time comes (usually involving some blood-spattering). His work with actors is remarkable across the board and everyone delivers a layered performance. However, this is the Lowe and Oram show and both are so strong that it would be enough to make them stars if the film weren’t too damn bizarre for mainstream success.
Sightseers has a unique tone that bounces between horror movie violence, harshly realistic character study, and audience crippling comedy and that’s exactly what will cause audiences to either love or loath the film. It makes the movie unpredictable and exciting, with viewers constantly caught off guard by what genre the next scene will bring. However, for some that will be an uncomfortable and difficult experience and they will grow to despise the frightening leads rather than being fascinated by them. That’s all simply a matter of taste and if you’re someone bred on mainstream movies that tell you how to feel, you will be deeply confused. However, those excited by the genre-mashing and tonal sling-shotting that Wheatley does so well will be a state of disturbed bliss throughout. There’s never been a movie quite like this since Wheatley’s last outing and there likely won’t be another one until he cranks out another flick. Let’s hope that happens as soon as humanly possible.