After the sudden, bloody violence of Down Terrace and Kill List, I’m not at all surprised that the body count for Sightseers – Ben Wheatley’s black comedy about a pair of murderous caravanning lovers – is similarly high. A defiantly English road movie, in the sense that it’s concerned with a holiday that incorporates a mix of campsites, rain, fleeces, hen parties and visits to top attractions like Crich Tramway Village, Wheatley’s third film was written by its two stars, Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, both experienced actors in the field of TV comedy, though some contributions were made by the director’s usual co-writer Amy Jump. Oram and Lowe play Chris and Tina, newly in a relationship, which is possibly Tina’s first; she lives at home with a demanding mother who hasn’t forgiven her daughter for the death of their dog a year earlier. In an uncharacteristic act of rebellion Tina decides to leave the house for a caravan holiday with Chris, yet fairly soon his psychotic tendencies are revealed and he starts killing anyone that he finds even remotely disagreeable. It begins in the wake of an alteraction over some dropped litter and progresses from there, with Tina – desperate to hold on to the feeling of being in love – going along with it before revealing her own aptitude for heartless murder.
The film gleefully and mercilessly attacks a recognisable national identity in a number of ways: we see petty caravan owners racing each other to secure a preferred spot, those who live north of the Watford Gap acting unreasonably when riled by a certain type of smug or haughty middle-or-upper-class southerner, a selfish and bitter parent, fusspots, men who are only comfortable when they’re talking about vehicles and engines and a magnificent dismissal of Daily Mail readers. I’m not sure how well the film was received outside of the UK, as I doubt that all of these characters and characteristics have their equivalents elsewhere, but I found Sightseers very funny at times, even if it does begin to run out of steam near the end. (The central joke of ‘What if Alan Bennett or Mike Leigh wrote Badlands?’ can only stretch so far.) That said I’m further enamoured with Wheatley’s ability to meld the most pitch black comedy with an altogether unsettling mood: the folk horror and psychedelia of Kill List and A Field In England also begins to creep in around the edges here, adding to the disturbing tone. Having watched the director’s first four films it’s obvious that there are certain recurring themes and acts – I’ve seen more people bludgeoned to death with blunt objects or hit by vehicles than I’ve had hot dinners this week, while class, the occult and spiritual concerns are rife – but there’s still an intoxicating unpredictability about them and some of the images are so strong I’ve found myself lying awake thinking about them at night. In the case of Sightseers it’s what we see during the last few seconds, during a scene set at Ribblehead Viaduct in Yorkshire. That was the first place I stopped at when I was on a similar holiday with my wife around five years ago; during that fortnight I proposed, so I used to have good memories of Ribblehead Viaduct, and other places we visited. Not now, though; I’m afraid it has been well and truly Wheatleyed.
Directed by: Ben Wheatley.
Written by: Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, Amy Jump.
Starring: Alice Lowe, Steve Oram.
Cinematography: Laurie Rose.
Editing: Amy Jump, Robin Hill, Ben Wheatley.
Music: Jim Williams.
Running Time: 88 minutes.