British filmmaker Ben Wheatley has earned a following on the genre film festival circuit for a pair of distinctive movies with two very different moods. His 2009 debut “Down Terrace” followed a family of criminals through a series of amusing misadventures, suggesting Wheatley’s proclivity for enlivening dreary circumstances with an odd sense of play. However, 2010’s grave “Kill List,” in which a jaded hit man struggles with marriage problems, went great lengths to expand his range. With the arrival of “Sightseers,” Wheatley’s aesthetic strengths finally start to fall into place. This hugely entertaining tale of serial killers in love neatly merges the neurotic black comedy of “Down Terrace” with the morbid twists of “Kill List,” inching close to defining the director’s overall style.
As with his previous efforts, “Sightseers” was crafted in close collaboration with the lead actors, who share writing credits as a result of building their characters out of Wheatley’s original scenario. His approach yields a highly contained genre exercise with only the skeleton of plot, but that’s more than enough to make “Sightseers” glide along with behavioral minutiae and bursts of violence.
The scenario takes a matter of minutes to sink in: 34-year-old introvert Tina (Alice Lowe), a woman with a diploma in dog psychology even though she accidentally killed her own pooch a year earlier, still lives at home with her obsessive mother. In the opening minutes, she announces plans to travel around the Yorkshire countryside with her mysterious new lover Chris (Steve Oram), a chummy, bearded man who claims to have aspirations as a writer even though he’s not writing anything in particular.
Pushed for details by Tina, he describes his latest project as “an erotic odyssey,” which is actually the experience he intends to have on the road with her. A few scenes later, there’s little doubt that there’s more wrong with Chris than misguided career ambition. A parking lot incursion with a litterbug results in Chris mowing the man down with his Oxford Caravan, the first in a rash of deaths that make it clear to Tina that she’s cavorting with a closeted serial killer.
But Tina, no stable case herself, learns to embrace the tendency for the sake of their burgeoning relationship. Imagine a microbudgeted “Bonnie and Clyde” with a dash of Mike Leigh: “Sightseers” is almost certainly the first road trip comedy interspersed with blunt murderous interludes.
While the murders are never as graphic as the infamous “hammer scene” from “Kill List,” Wheatley still heaps on the blood in ample detail, creating the strange sensation of amusing circumstances that never create distance from the violent events onscreen. “Sightseers” lists among its executive producers genre heavyweight Edgar Wright, whose “Shawn of the Dead” managed to introduce extreme comedy into a zombie story without creating a parody of itself. “Sightseers” operates with similar versatility by taking the rash of killings at face value while allowing it to co-exist with the more overtly hilarious aspects of their relationship.
That contained dynamic prevents “Sightseers” from reaching the advanced thematic heights of “Kill List,” and if you stop to consider the logistics of their situation it doesn’t entirely hold up. But the script steadily relies on keenly written dialogue that turns the couple’s arguments into a honest look at how romance can go awry. When Chris kills another writer they encounter at a campsite for making him feel less adequate, or clobbers a hiker to a gory pulp for allegedly hitting on Tina, he’s basically acting like a big baby — a very dangerous big baby.
“It’s just about personal empowerment,” she tells him. They could just as well be talking about their sex life, as the movie’s final punchline is a hilarious riff on Tina’s verdict. By that point, the character have been so well developed that the triumph of the mayhem actually forms a kind of twisted happy ending, bridging the gap between Wheatley’s earlier movies. He’s still cultivating his storytelling abilities, but Wheatley has clearly found his sweet spot: a darkly funny place with serious potential.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? IFC Films picked up “Sightseers” as it premiered at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, where it’s likely to find a welcome response from genre buffs. The movie won’t become a major hit in theaters but, like Wheatley’s earlier films, will probably reach eager crowds on the genre circuit and then land solid numbers on VOD.