Frump and Circumstance
Like the countryside oddities its main characters take in while on vacation, Sightseers is a fun little curiosity that's definitely not for everyone. Director Ben Wheatley's bizarre Britcom/horror hybrid works more as a fascination than as a recommendable good time at the movies, but some who seek it out will likely find a new favorite cult-film-of-the-moment.
Co-writers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram star in their own story, as Tina and Chris, a newly dating, blue-collar couple. As performers and creators, they really sell the dull-eyed boredom of people who seem to have just figured out that dream-fulfillment is no longer on their road map. They're content to be mediocre and happy with each other, embarking on a tired sightseeing trip, even as the wider world charges ahead in full-on Party Mode.
Sure, Chris has vague plans of becoming a writer, but he's blocked at every turn by an utter lack of inspiration and original thought--until one afternoon, when his mobile home backs over an obnoxious tourist. Neither Tina nor the audience is sure how "accidental" the fatal incident was, but it gives Chris a thrill that soon becomes addictive. In short order, Sightseers becomes a laid-back version of Natural Born Killers, where only one of the perps is fully on board: Tina wades into their new life of crime, at first domineered by Chris's big personality, then consumed by the power she now has over unsuspecting people's lives.
As with most movies of this kind (and there are just enough to warrant a bona fide sub-genre, complete with its own tropes), our protagonists discover that the damage they do to others infects their souls, and eventually their once-kind-of-strong relationship. At first, Chris and Tina are able to rationalize their crimes as vigilante justice against litterers, snobs, and idiots unappreciative of historical landmarks. But as their brief journey wears on, a "punishable offense" becomes as innocuous as attending a bachelorette party or insisting that Chris and Tina pick up after a dog they've kidnapped.
The murders are played for laughs here, but the filmmakers revel in the ghoulishness of these characters' actions. It's not enough to see Chris repeatedly bash a snotty tourist's head in with a rock; we must also see the mushy aftermath in all its crime-scene-photo realism. These moments are disturbing, and add a nice punctuation to the dryly offbeat road trip of two otherwise boring people. Like the TV series Doc Martin, the dialogue is authentically working-class and alternately grumpy and sweet (often very funny, too), but those who can't stand the sight of blood will likely get whiplash from looking away so sharply and so often.
There's a lot to like here, particularly in the performances. At times, Sightseers doesn't seem so much like a well-observed comedy-of-the-uncomfortable as it does a docudrama about low-rent human train-wrecks. The filmmakers ease us into their ridiculous nightmare by setting up Chris and Tina as actual, average-looking people. They don't have movie-star looks or dispositions, and my sympathy ebbed and flowed with their adventures. Sure, they're dimwitted losers, I thought, but at least they're working together on a goal--sort of. Wheatley, Lowe, and Oram present one of the trickiest anti-hero couples I've seen in a long time.
Sightseers is a strange one to recommend. There's very little about the movie that's "cinematic", but I loved the intimacy and unexpectedness of the story. If you're looking for a quirky, conventional romance (or even a safe, unconventional one), move along. But as far as homicidal-black-comedy/dysfunctional-relationship films go, this one's tough to beat.
Feeling adventurous? Sightseers is now playing at Chicago's Music Box Theatre. Get showtimes and theatre information here.