Ben Wheatley plays it relatively straight for his follow-up to the deeply mysterious Kill List, although Wheatley's version of straight may not resemble anything you've seen before. I love Kill List - I love how unnerving it is, how confounding, how challenging. Sightseers is a far more accessible film, but that's hardly to claim it's conventional. It's a straightforward story that can be enjoyed on its surface, but that plays with deeper questions of gender politics, classism and the horror of the mundane.
But mostly, and most importantly, Sightseers is a blast.
The film's written by stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (with some help from Wheatley's writing partner Amy Jump), and their uniquely British take on the caravan holiday is sharp and specific. Alice plays Tina, a sheltered woman who still, in her 30s, lives with her imperious mother. Tina's bristling under her mother's oppression and perceived guilt for being inadvertently responsible for the death of their dog, Poppy. She meets a man who likes her as she is, who isn't afraid of her mother and who's charmed by Tina's naivete. Oram's Chris invites Tina for an RV roadtrip through the countryside, visiting the Tramway Museum, the Pencil Museum and other points of interest, with miles of lush greenery and remote campsites in between. It's all filmed on location, and filmed gorgeously.
As Tina rejoices in her newfound freedom and sexual adventure (she knit herself a crocheted crotchless panty set, people), she begins to realize that Chris isn't enjoying the vacation as unreservedly as she. Litterbugs, pompous writers and drum circles all work to inspire Chris' wrath, and soon Tina finds herself smack in the middle of a dimwitted, middle-class murder spree.
Tina's journey from hapless to depraved is the delicious meat of the film, as Alice Lowe gives a performance by which Sightseers lives and dies. She begins her holiday so fretful and timid, and by the end she's this sinister monarch, let out of her box and damn well refusing to go back in. Chris is nuts to begin with, and Oram gives a terrifically entertaining performance, but the most interesting aspect of his character is his preoccupation with social strata. He bludgeons a man he claims would have once been part of that minuscule noble class while he, Chris, would have worked as his servant. He loathes the "smug complacency" of an author working on his third book, and he declares one victim "not a person. He's a Daily Mail reader."
Sightseers is marvelously, breathtakingly gory, with some of the most vivid death scenes in recent memory. The tone remains bright and wry, setting the violence in its quirky place, giving the film a feeling that is somehow both understated and merciless. The script is outright hilarious - nearly every line slays - but the beats bring the biggest laughs, as Wheatley nails an unexpected pace that serves the story very well. And Sightseers has without a doubt some of the most effective song choices of any film this year, each tune irreverent and surprising.
Chris lives by a very precise set of rules, and god help the man who operates outside his moral edicts. And when Tina dares to act out her own personal grievances, Chris is incensed. Tina isn't allowed to drive the caravan, and she's not allowed to go killing people willy-nilly. That's the man's job. Sightseers is a wickedly funny, brutal little film, one with crushed skulls and huge laughs and a dreadfully clever use of Gloria Jones' original version of "Tainted Love." But it's also a story of one lifelong repressed woman who becomes empowered in the most dramatic way possible, and Alice Lowe sells the shit out of that story.