By now those chosen few who’ve sought out Ben Wheatley’s latest, Sightseers (his next film, the English Civil War-set “A Field in England“, opens in UK cineplexes in July), have gotten their fill and hopefully developed an opinion. The film, unleashed upon U.S. audiences in limited release, is one of the darkest I’ve experienced and certainly the darkest comedy I’ve come across in a spell. The comedic elements, noted as integral by a score of critics, however, fell away for this reviewer mid-film and never returned. Instead, Wheatley’s command of the craft unearthed a deep-seated terror, a sickness that ebbed with the growing body count. A serial killer love story is one way to describe Sightseers, although no honest description should go without highlighting the brazen display of violence and madness that mark the movie and Wheatley’s output at large. It is no worse for that though, in fact it’s a captivating character study with two skilled leads (who also co-wrote the script).
As Chris (Steve Oram) and his new bride Tina (Alice Lowe) embark on a landmark-studded trip through the British Isles in a caravan (or a mobile home or travel trailer depending on locale), their rosy-on-the-surface relationship is steeped in worrisome vibes when Chris “accidentally” runs over a slobbish young man who earlier littered and refused to pick up after himself. A minor offense, but when fed into Chris’ unique moral scheme, one that was punishable by death. As the couple take in the often majestic countryside (and each other), certain truths bubble up to the surface — most memorably Chris’ sideline as a serial killer.
Tina’s reaction to this revelation — not unexpected the way Sightseers is pitched but certainly a pleasant surprise to Chris — is first curious, then attracted and finally elated by the concept of impulsive, irrevocable homicide. This is naturally something Chris is at odds with, considering his own set of regulations, a carefully crafted bit of madness that he nonetheless deems law. However, the sex is better than ever and Tina glows with pride as Chris practices personal justice on unsuspecting innocents.
Wheatley approaches the scenes where people are unexpectedly dispatched with an eye for striking imagery and a seeming inability to cut away. Perhaps it’s for the best — we see the remains immediately post-mortem and our laughter grows hushed, a guffaw is caught in our throat. It’s this collective gasp that Wheatley is aiming for and a responsibility we all take on in watching these characters and perhaps developing a soft spot for them.
Try as you might, Steve Oram and Alice Lowe are just that good, apparently building on a history as a British comic duo to step into the shoes of two people who feel, well, mostly normal. From their banter to the minute expressions that betray love, disappointment or disgust, their sometimes stifling normality is what makes the killings so nerve-wracking and finally nearly physical affecting.
And as their relationship complicates itself, each following victim becomes more difficult to decipher. A late scene in the caravan with the duo and a man Chris has grown close to possesses a nail-biting air of dread that is not easily matched. Oran and Lowe rather skillfully make the dramatic developments feel rooted even as their collective mental state spirals off into the fire-and-brimstone corners of the human mind.
If you know what you’re getting into, Sightseers will deliver. It pays to keep in mind, however, that the film is a character study first, so fans of outright gore will be disappointed by the lack of ample blood splatter. This is a horror film alright, but it’s made all the more resonant by the efforts to humanize our leads and the distinctive circumstances under which their romance blooms. They are a particularly thorny rose rising up out of a blood-stained earth: Inconspicuous yet dangerous. Viewer, be aware before grabbing the stem.