Review: Sightseers (Wheatley, 2012)

December 8, 2012 6:00 pm

If Oliver Stone’s visceral Natural Born Killers is the notorious story of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ on acid, Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers is most aptly described as the same story, but one brought to the fore by lukewarm cups of tea and sunday visits to National Trust heritage sights. A quintessentially British take on ultra-violence and one of Hollywood’s longest standing traditions: criminals on the run. Sightseers is, however, a comedy.

Chris and Tina (Oram and Lowe), a newly formed middle-aged couple take the chance to escape from the latter’s overbearing mother and the stresses of daily life to tour the countryside for a romantic retreat; well, as romantic as an ancient, decrepit caravan could ever prove to be. Their first stop: the Crich Tramway Museum.

After Chris nearly comes to blows with an understandably annoying, but innocent fellow tourist who warrants Chris’s abuse after littering, a tragic ‘accident’ takes place in which said tourist ends up under the wheels of the couple’s caravan; a set-piece vehicle which quickly roots itself on a spectrum of iconic film transportation, somewhere between the menacing truck of Duel (Spielberg, 1971) and The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Its an image which is brilliantly funny, but in keeping with a tradition of dark humour which makes its impact through the sheer juxtaposition of violence and context, akin to Shaun of the Dead (2004) or Hot Fuzz (2007) both of which were directed by Sightseers producer Edgar Wright.

From here on out, with Chris’s bloodlust satisfied and Tina equally willing to join in on the (s)laughter, the couple take to viciously killing anyone who crosses their path. Like Wheatley’s previous effort Kill List (2011), which it should be stressed is not a comedy, the violence present is very, very graphic. There is something to be said, however, in the fact that the violence never detracts from the comedy but curiously, even worryingly, enhances it.  It’s the kind of comedy you hate to laugh at, the kind that makes you complicit in the frankly horrendous actions occurring on screen. This isn’t your average family holiday.

The fact of the matter is, however: the film is exceptionally funny, benefiting from its intelligently constructed script and strong lead performances. The comic timing and intonation of Alice Lowe in particular, raises the film from gross-out comedy to astute satire. After one particularly grisly killing, Chris justifies his actions on the basis that ‘he’s not a person… he’s a Daily Mail reader’ and ingeniously, we are inclined to agree. Its a simple narrative with some conventional plot-twists and staple dark-humour jokes, but done to such a remarkably high standard.

Wheatley’s ability to pair horrific imagery with comic dialogue and such surreal situations (epitomised by a third-act visit to the Keswick Pencil Museum: it is funnier that it sounds), all timed with pin-point accuracy, it is clear that Sightseers is destined to become a cult classic of comedy.

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