Scrub away the gore and the nastier bits of provocation, and Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers belongs squarely in the tradition of British classics like Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ruling Class — satires that transformed simmering class resentment into brittle, nasty dark comedy.
The key to these films is a disciplined tone: Whatever contempt the filmmakers have for their characters, or whatever types those characters represent, is harnessed by dry wit and an instinct not to overplay their outrageous premises. Take Kind Hearts and Coronets: If a draper’s assistant, eight people removed from the dukedom, has to knock off the whole octave to claim the rank, the comedy comes from the tale’s matter-of-fact approach to a horrifying scenario.
With his first two features, Down Terrace and Kill List, Wheatley attracted a fervent cult following for his formal mastery and his willingness to explore the darker side of human nature. But a misanthropic streak serves him poorly in Sightseers, which chokes on its own toxicity; in following the murderous adventures of a schlubby couple on holiday, the film can’t contain its loathing for them and for the sorry creatures they encounter along the way. There’s hardly a character on screen who isn’t pathetic or risible or some unsavory combination of the two.
Scripted by co-stars Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, a pair of British sketch comedians, Sightseers opens with Tina (Lowe) still living with her mother, a deranged old shrew who’s become unbearable in the year since her beloved dog died in freak knitting accident. (Beware of the flashback.)
Needing to get out of the house, she eagerly joins her seemingly mild-mannered, hirsute boyfriend Chris (Oram) on a caravan tour through the countryside. Traveling through Northern England’s dullest-sounding tourist attractions, like the Pencil Museum, Tina and Chris are ostensibly collecting material for a book Chris is writing. But things take an ugly turn.
After accidentally reversing into a rude slob who doesn’t see their RV backing up, Tina and Chris shake off the incident and go back to the itinerary. But the deaths don’t end there. They also stop being accidental. Chris proves himself to be a genuine sociopath, killing off anyone who offends him or or his girlfriend, and Tina, once a wallflower, finds herself swept up in the violence. Ever the suggestible type, Tina first forgives Chris his transgressions, then takes part in them herself — with no small amount of pleasure.
Wheatley makes a running joke of Chris and Tina’s bloody tour past the quaint landmarks of the English vales, but it doesn’t take long for that joke to grow repetitive and stale. Sightseers is a grisly, cheerfully vulgar piece of work, with an admirable commitment to making the violence register as forcefully as the comedy. Wheatley’s abundant talent is on full display here, from the crisp compositions to a zeal for exposing society’s baser instincts, all carried over from Down Terrace and Kill List.
But there’s a difference between the sinister comedy of those films and the outright hatefulness that throws Sightseers so far off balance. Chris and Tina are a sorry, lumpen pair, with only their newfound bloodlust to separate them from the dead-eyed tourists shuffling around with their cameras. If anything, their victims are more grotesque, like a snooty shutterbug who badgers them over dog leavings or the first victim, who refuses to pick his ice-cream wrapper off the floor. It may be the satirist’s credo to spare no one, but in Sightseers, no one is spared Wheatley’s smug superiority.