By: Bradley Hadcroft
Ben Wheatley’s third picture receives its U.S. release on December 10th and it will be of great interest to see how this low-budget, Edgar Wright-produced genre mash-up translates across the pond. The humour is as low-key as it is jet-black and much more Steve Coogan than Monty Python. Sightseers united the critics but split the fans in the U.K. and it will be fascinating to see how it plays to an American audience.
The film tells the cautionary tale of two lovers Chris and Tina, played by Steve Oram (Kill List, Welcome to The Punch) and Alice Lowe (Hot Fuzz, The Worlds End) respectively. Both perched one heartless push away from the chasm of despair, the unstable duo embark upon an ill-fated road trip around Britain in Chris’ beloved Abbey Oxford caravan.
Tina is desperate to escape her cloying mother and the terrible guilt of a tragic knitting needle accident while Chris is desperate to show her his simple but honest world. A world where tacky discount vouchers and desolate pencil museums blend with shit for lipstick and a dog-piss-soaked mattress. It’s not long before comedic farce and, in turn, bloody murder come knocking on the caravan door.
Most of the humour on show in this downbeat but loveable little movie is of the cringe-inducing variety and more often than not takes a detour down the sexually degenerative route. The juxtaposition of two ordinary people doing ordinary things but reacting extraordinarily violent in confrontational situations is somewhat of a one-trick pony. However, it does throw up many opportunities for tasteless sight gags and some excellent character acting. Not to mention some gory fun.
In terms of the two main protagonists, it's Lowe who comes out on top. Her portrayal of Tina is pitched perfectly between sweetness and bat-shit crazy, and she has a lot of the best and most disgusting lines. The seduction scene where she is sporting hand-knitted pink peep-hole lingerie epitomizes both her character and the tone of the film itself. Wheatley has a history of writing strong female leads that stay relatively calm while the men around them capitulate into panicking wrecks and Sightseers is no different.
The other characters we meet along the way are a little one-dimensional and cliched but as they are mostly just fodder that is understandable. Notable exceptions are a great turn by Eileen Davis (Bright Star) as Tina’s mum and a beautifully judged performance by Richard Glover (A Field in England) as vomiting Eco-pod inventor Martin.
The locations are utterly beautiful, as is the cinematography. As a result, the film comes across as a kind of twisted tourist board advert. It would be of no surprise at all if a cult-like pilgrimage to the destinations depicted in the movie emerges in the future.
Despite the propensity towards humour, Sightseers possesses quite an impressively violent dark streak as you would expect from Wheatley. The killings are relatively gruesome, with the emphasis on impressive post-trauma practical effects.
I spoke with the special effects company responsible, Rowley SFX, who said: "Our involvement came through Janey Levick the designer whom we've worked with on several projects." The gorgeous and imaginative locations that are such an asset to the film were anything but for them. They explained: "The biggest challenge for us as the special effects team was the fire scene - it was filmed in one of the remotest places we've ever filmed, on top of a colossal slag pit up a winding mountain. We had lots of logistical issues to overcome to complete that in a controlled manor, and it lashed it down with rain, wind and a stinging hail! Quite an experience." It is no small wonder then that they are "so glad the film is being well received."
There is never a dull moment on our journey with Tina and Chris. The retro soundtrack is as quirky and sardonic as they are and the body count is bountiful. Throwing in a random dose of John Hurt (Alien, Snowpiercer) and an X-rated pervert version of the dog from The Artist ensures that there’s always something interesting around the next bend.
Without doubt this is another very solid entry in Wheatley’s impressively diverse body of work, and bodes well for his next outing, the English civil war-set A Field in England. However, for this viewer, Sightseers lacked the delicate equilibrium between mirth and menace that so galvanised his previous efforts. Just like the two protagonists, Sightseers should be approached with caution as it is definitely more dead pan humour than head pan horror.
Sightseers is now available on DVD from IFC Films. Bonus features include interviews with stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, plus director Ben Wheatley, producer Nira Park, and more. Pick up a copy below: