After only three feature films – Down Terrace, last year’s sinister Kill List and now the Cannes and MIFF playing Sightseers – Essex-born director Ben Wheatley has well and truly established himself as one of the most exciting genre filmmakers working in the industry today. With an eye for unsettling images and a talent for esoteric tales, he’s been compared to the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Ken Loach and Joel & Ethan Coen – not comparisons critics make lightly in my experience, but in Wheatley’s case they’re deserved. His latest blend of high and low art is the aforementioned Sightseers, a weird, disquieting, uncomfortably funny serial killer road-trip movie. Think Natural Born Killers set in Yorkshire. Only much, much funnier.
The film stars comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, in roles they wrote for themselves. Lowe plays Tina, a timid woman who’s spent her entire life under the thumb of a domineering mother. Oram plays Chris, her bearded, balding boyfriend who’s planned a romantic caravan getaway just for two. On the surface they’re an amiable pair of oddballs – in fact they’re actually kind of cute. While Tina knits and decks out the interior of their camper with cushion covers and potpourri, Chris maps their route through the countryside, carefully putting time aside to visit such fascinating attractions as the Ribblehead Viaduct and the Kensington Pencil Museum.
But being a Wheatley production, you can’t shake the troubling feeling that there’s something a little off about these two; a malevolence lurking, just waiting to come out. A littering tourist at the Crich Tram Museum – another must see on the pairs list of cultural landmarks – has Chris seething with impotent fury. But when they “accidentally” back over the man in the car-park half an hour later, he’s a perfect picture of serenity.
It’s a disconcerting calmness that’s reflected in Wheatley’s near perfect control of aesthetic. As the duo makes their way across the countryside — leaving an increasingly more blatant trail of carnage behind them — Wheatley’s masterful framing infuses the green and grey English landscape with an inescapable eeriness reminiscent of Kill List. Only this time, the mood is punctuated by moments of black-as-pitch comedy.
Violence occurs in a variety of ways; sometimes it’s matter-of-fact, other times it’s brazenly comedic, and still other times it’s built up slowly, with sickening sensations of dread. The outcome is always the same though: Chris and Tina have one more dead body on their hands, but refuse to let it spoil their holiday. That you feel sorry for these psychopathic bumpkins, and at times even root for them, is testament to Oram and Lowe’s disarming chemistry and morbidly affecting script.
Wheatley’s employment of several pop-songs throughout – including Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” and a super creepy slowed down version of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch”– is the icing on the blood-splattered cake.
Sightseers was reviewed as part of our coverage of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival. For more MIFF reviews, click here.