In his last film, “Kill List”, Ben Wheatley managed to successfully merge the two genre picture styles of “reluctant hit man” and “societal horror film”. In his latest film, Sightseers, Wheatley repeats that interest in merging two different styles of film within one running time. This time around, Sightseers is equal parts “Badlands” and “Bottle Rocket”. This means that if you enjoy a bit of giggles with your bloody rampage, Sightseers is most likely your kinda film.
The movie follows an awkward, middle-aged couple as they attempt a nice, peaceful trip across the British countryside. Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) are not your typical thirty-somethings, though. For starters, Tina still lives with her mother in a situation that seems to have stalled out about twenty years prior. Tina, being the perpetual fifteen year-old, is cautiously subservient to her mother only to jump at the first real opportunity of disobedience. That disobedience comes in the form of Chris, a strange man in his own right. With his skittish, post-bullied, adult-ish persona Chris comes off as a self-hating man searching for some sort of affirmation he isn’t as much a failure as he thinks he is. With all of that emotional baggage set forth, the damaged couple start off on a noticeably bland holiday.
That is the portion of the film that falls well within the “Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson-esque, prototype of story telling. Complete with comedically awkward exchanges and confused wandering by emotionally stilted characters, the first act of this film seems to cushion itself well into that quirky comedy genre. Then the inciting incident happens and we’re in the second act. That act, and the remainder of the film, never loses its quirk or its comedy, it just turns the darkest shade of black one could imagine. That framework of emotionally stilted and awkward characters takes a turn into the sociopathic and leaves the audience in an uncomfortable spot.
That uncomfortable spot is right on the edge of horrific and hilarious. It’s not so much that death is portrayed in a humorous light, it’s that these deaths are also portrayed with an appreciable amount of gore. This is not Looney Tunes, there is no cartoon violence with no real repercussions. Every act of violence is graphic and uncomfortably long. Wheatley and his camera dwell on that violence as if to remind the audience exactly what journey they’re along for. That journey, which is mostly comedic, spends enough intimate time with the dark and the horrific that ends up as an uneasy exploration of human interaction. When the part of our brains that experience love, joy, and lust is thrown into a murderous act how does it react? Does it switch to complete disgust, or does it adapt and associate that violence with the love and joy that surrounds it?
That question is what keeps Sightseers from being a true comedy or a true crime film. With the decision to straddle those genres and those themes, Wheatley transcends a simple narrative into something far more complicated and far more interesting. One could think of Sightseers as some sort of sensory experiment, shifting from pleasure and pain so often that it causes cognitive confusion. While that could be argued, what can’t be argued is that the film is a well crafted piece of storytelling that reenforces the promise of Ben Wheatley’s burgeoning cinematic career. And really, that’s the exciting part.