Watching Sightseers has suggested two things to me: firstly, that director Ben Wheatley is shaping up as a very, very fine filmmaker; and secondly, the inside of writers/stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram’s heads are worrying places indeed.
Wheatley’s follow-up to last year’s Kill List is the blackest of black comedies, a deeply unnerving combination of inane banality, head-smashing violence and genuine tenderness. It’s like an ultra-violent, comedy travelogue, or Carry on Camping goes to hell. Can you imagine Sid James’ sex-starved character finally losing his cool amidst the dreary surroundings of the Paradise campsite; taking a pickaxe to Peter Butterworth’s face, and petrol-bombing Kenneth Williams’ coach with Barbara Windsor trapped inside, tearfully pounding on the windows and choking down lungfuls of smoke? Ben Wheatley can imagine this, so can Alice Lowe and Steve Oram. In fact, so well can they visualise this frightening vision of rural cruelty, they went and filmed it, and here it is. Sightseers; It’s spectacularly fun, but unquestionably terrifying; the cinematic equivalent of eating a jelly filled with razor blades.
Tina (Alice Lowe) is living a life of tedium with a meddlesome mother who still grieves for their recently deceased pet dog. Enter Chris (Steve Oram), her knight in Gore-Tex armour to whisk her away for a week of caravanning around some of Britain’s most brilliantly underwhelming tourist spots; namely the National Tramway Museum in Crich, and Keswick’s locally-renowned shrine to all things pencil related.
Sadly the pair’s quality time together is almost-immediately spoilt by the thoughtless appearance of other living, breathing, bickering, littering human beings. Chris has a worryingly short fuse and the unwanted intrusion of outsiders into their methodically planned holiday prompts a bloody and violent response.
Steve Oram and Alice Lowe are both immensely funny as the weird little duo from the midlands. The bizarre tedium of their courtship, the petty bickering over dog’s names and the like, makes an ingeniously horrific counterpoint to the maniacal nature of their crimes. Dialogue frequently dwells upon minor trivialities, such as the technicalities of various models of caravan, or the ultimate tensile strength of blow-moulded plastic. It’s an odd piece of homespun brutality that mixes the trifling with the ghastly; imagine Mike Leigh’s Bonnie and Clyde or a Ken Loach slasher.
Although frequently hilarious, it’s the violent, more uncomfortable elements of the film which begin to dominate as the film draws to a conclusion. For the final twenty minutes or so, as the balance between murder and comedy becomes more heavily weighted in favour of the former, you begin to notice that you’ve laughed less, and gawped more.
Ultimately it’s a balancing-act which doesn’t quite weigh-up, but that shouldn’t distract from the fact that Ben Wheatley’s mixture of laughs and winces is simultaneously as fun and as frightening as anything you’re likely to see for a very long time.
Wheatley’s next film, a Civil War-era story of desertion, paranoia and alchemy, is something I look forward to with approximately sixty-five per cent enthusiasm, and thirty-five per cent genuine terror.