After "Down Terrace" and "Kill List," midnight-movie manqués and buffs in the know were wondering what director Ben Wheatley would do next; the answer is, apparently, make you laugh until you sound like a hole in the side of an airplane. "Sightseers," starring and written by Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, starts as Chris (Oram) and Tina (Lowe) embark on a camping tour of Britain, various caves and pencil museums and heritage sights -- a nice, relaxing trip for a couple in their third month of going out. Things go off the rails early, though, at a streetcar museum where Chris is incensed by a litterbug…and, later, distractedly backs over the man and kills him.
And it turns out that for Chris and Tina -- both emotionally fragile and put-upon, killing people is like eating potato chips: After the first one, it's hard to stop, and once your partner's enjoyed it, well, you might as well too. Part of "Sightseers" plays like a funnier, scarier, British-er "God Bless America," with the exception that for all of their foibles and quirks -- and they each have plenty -- Chris and Tina are always characters, not just pawns of a plot moving towards a predetermined endgame. Yes, they have idiosyncrasies (Tina's love of knitting reaches its nadir, or its zenith, when she produces a garment that is entirely knit, and entirely not right), but they feel real and lived in, no matter what happens around them or what they make happen.
Wheatley blew minds with the what-the-hell-was-that? "Kill List," and while "Sightseers" is far more of a comedy -- even if people are slipping on blood and brains instead of banana peels -- it still proves that Wheatley has an intrinsic and intelligent grasp of the key to strong storytelling, regardless of genre: Make people wonder what's going to happen next. He's also a superb technician; a flashback detailing the fate of Tina's beloved dog Poppy has the sublime, silly confidence of a silent-comedy gag, while several of the film's more shocking moments incorporate excellent camerawork and editing. The films's soundtrack is excellent, as well -- with two versions of "Tainted Love," two versions of "Season of the Witch" and a brilliant use of that most British of hymns, Blake's "Jerusalem."
"Sightseers" never becomes a one-joke film, though, in no small part due to the smarts and sly comedy of Lowe and Oram's script and performances. A group of hikers staring deadpan at a public outrage is nigh-perfect, while Tina and a upscale yuppie's discussion of interior design strategy turns into a semantic struggle about "decor" versus "clutter." Wheatley's film is a look at what happens when lives of quiet desperation become very, very loud, and how fast a couple can go from co-dependents to co-conspirators. "Sightseers" homicidal holiday isn't just a pitch-black comedy made with skill, will and brains; it's also another demonstration that Wheatley is, to use an all-too-appropriate phrase, going places. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from the Cannes Film Festival.