There’s a complaint that often gets leveled against the Coen Brothers: that their movies are largely an excuse to make fun of characters that they don’t like. I’ve never really agreed with that knock — but it’s sort of how I felt watching Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers,” a work of impressive craft and distressing content. It’s a black comedy about a couple taking a holiday together through the British countryside. One is essentially a psychotic murderer, the other a woman with severely arrested development. When they’re not having sex or visiting inane museums, they’re murdering people who piss them off for the smallest of reasons — a dropped candy wrapper; a bit too much bragging; talking too loudly in a restaurant.
These two — Tina (Alice Lowe) and Chris (Steve Oram) — are deeply sick individuals. Tina still lives at home with her cranky mother; Chris claims to be a writer but the evidence onscreen suggests otherwise. They’ve only been dating for about a month, and this road trip will be the couple’s first true test. But Wheatley treats their journey as one big joke, about their stupidity, their violence, their desperation, and about the world around them.
For some reason, I didn’t feel like joining in on the fun; maybe I found them too sad to be amusing. All the attempted humor puts a wall between us and any true insight into the mind of the sort of person who would behave this way. I didn’t really understand Tina and Chris, which meant I didn’t want to laugh with them and I certainly felt uncomfortable laughing at them.
That doesn’t mean Wheatley, a rising star in the world of international genre cinema thanks to previous films like “Down Terrace” and “Kill List,” is as clueless as his characters — just that he might have miscalculated in this particular case. When he tones down the black comedy for brief periods, the movie suddenly springs to life. There is an amazing confrontation between Tina and Chris on the side of a road, after their relationship has hit a snag and Tina has run over a bicyclist just to prove a point. Now the conversation becomes refreshingly real, and the confrontation direct and exciting. “You’re a serial killer!” Tina yells in a moment of frustration — and uncharacteristic self-awareness. It’s a riveting moment, and one that hints at the far more interesting movie buried beneath the schtick. Wheatley also shows a deft hand with his use of music, montage, and onscreen violence.
I like to think I have a pretty good sense of humor, but it must be said that I was one of the few people at my screening of “Sightseers” — a surprise addition at Fantastic Fest — who didn’t laugh hysterically. But something about the movie left me cold. The comedy often struck me as mean, not funny. I’m sure Wheatley didn’t intend to mock his characters, but in opening them up to so much audience ridicule, he created something I didn’t want to see.