If you’re a character in a Ben Wheatley movie, and you happen to stumble into some kind of space neatly covered in plastic wrap, you should know: you are totally screwed.
But then again, just about everyone is screwed in a Ben Wheatley movie. The three of his films playing in Locarno’s tribute section “Histoire(s) du Cinema” — “Down Terrace,” “Kill List,” and “Sightseers” — almost certainly contain more murder victims than the rest of the festival’s lineup combined. His latest, “Sightseers,” a black comedy about a couple killing random people while on caravan holiday through the British countryside, was screened at Locarno with the French drama “A Few Hours of Spring,” a typical French arthouse film about a mother-son relationship and the idea of assisted suicide for the terminally ill — an unlikely but surprisingly effective double feature. “A Few Hours of Spring”‘s argument about the great value of life made for an interestingly harsh juxtaposition with Wheatley’s serial killers and their blissfully violent travels. His merciless attitude is almost Shakespearean: until the end credits roll, it’s impossible to guess who will survive.
Wheatley’s aesthetic is quite distinct; an eclectic, rule-breaking potpourri of highbrow technique and lowbrow genre that places him in a tradition with great directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese, or Stanley Kubrick (whom Wheatley is apparently obsessed with). Like Wheatley, Kubrick also made his way through many genres, always twisting their rules for his own purposes. He acknowledges the past and then breaks from it, using genre as more than just a simple audience draw. He’s not making spectacles, but rather agitating metaphors that transmit underlying social commentary. The intensified commotion keeps the most fastidious of viewers alert while his subtle, sophisticated style sneaks in through the back door, bypassing the brain for a direct sensory assault.
The act of murder in a Wheatley film can be aggressive or defensive, totally indiscriminate or intricately planned (here’s where the plastic wrap comes in handy). His work justifies violence by twisting and deconstructing moral standards, exposing the hypocrisy of their underlying concepts. At their core, his films are stories about relationships — couples trying to protect themselves against an aggressive world. Given the fact that all of Wheatley’s movies are co-produced by his wife Amy, and that all feature a highly aggressive couple defending themselves and each other with guns, knives, and other appliances, one may want to imagine the filmmakers as the world’s worst dinner party guests. Wheatley himself told me in an interview at Locarno that his movies were never intended to be screened together, as they were at the festival, because “they reveal too much” of his personality.
Still, reading Wheatley’s work in such a literal way would be too cursory; there is much more to it than the merry slaughterfests he presents in all three of his feature films. The usual relationship problems — cheating, splitting up, reconciliation — are of no interest to Wheatley. His couples work hard to stay together, and their method of negotiation with each other and the world around them does not consist of the usual endless talking of arthouse films. Instead, they use good old fashioned slashing. In Wheatley’s universe, there is no better way to say “I love you” than to run someone over with a car.
Beatrice Behn is a German film academic, curator, and freelance film critic. You can follow her work on www.icoff.de. This piece is part of Indiewire’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.