Directed by Ben Wheatley Written by Alice Lowe & Steve Oram, Amy Jump IFC Films
When it comes to science I profess an unhealthy amount of ignorance, but there has to be genetic programming on our DNA that prevents us from choking the life out of each other for the hundreds of minuscule slights we’re forced to endure each day, right? If not, wouldn’t the city streets and roadsides be littered with the decaying corpses of the jerks who fail to hold the elevator when you’re rushing towards the door or who decide a movie theater is the best spot for an intimate phone conversation filled with the sorts of private, intimate details I don’t even want my doctor to know?
Fresh of Kill List, Ben Wheatley explores what makes a air of the world’s most banal serial killers tick in this razor sharp black comedy. Tina (Alice Lowe) has lived under the oppressive thumb of her domineering mother for over thirty years before meeting Chris (Steve Oram). Henpecked and riddled with guilt over the accidental death of her mum’s beloved dog, Tina finally escapes in order to embark on a two week caravan vacation with Chris to tour the beauty of northern England. Of course, the other purpose of the trip is to get away from Tina’s mother in order to explore one another in self-professed journey of sexual discovery (the sight of Lowe brandishing a set of knit bra and crotchless panties is “awe” inspiring). Lost in the excitement of touring the world’s largest pencil museum and the prospect of endless bus tours is Chris’ secret. Anyone that he perceives as crossing or slighting him, or anyone who makes him feel inferior to winds up with a caved in skull and “Cause of Death: Accident” on their death certificate. It’s not too long before Mary uncovers Chris’ secret, and not only is she on board, she takes to his bad habit with a bit too much enthusiasm.
A large portion of the humor owes its due to how overtly British Sightseers is. The film could not be any more British if it contained a scene of Winston Churchill buggering Princess Di underneath Stonehenge. Wheatley packs the film with the grimmest sort of gallows humor steeped in the British tradition of keeping a stiff upper lip and adhering to polite disapproval at all times. A film like Sightseers would never get out of the starting blocks in the states. The idea that a serial killer can be likeable, even charming at times would send midwest soccer moms into a tizzy over the decaying moral values of our once great nation before turning their attention back to Honey Boo Boo chat boards.
Make no mistake Sightseers works because of the strength of its two leads. Chris is the more calculated of the two. When slighted the camera pulls in on his steely eyes and you can see the wheels turning while Chris plots his adversary’s demise. All of Chris’ issues stem from feeling marginalized and passed over. His attempts at grasping at greatness-ostensibly the is a means towards inspiring him to write a book-leave him empty handed. He has a specific criteria for picking out his victims: the rude and the kinds of men that put on airs in order to keep Chris on his lowered place on the social pecking order. When another traveller strikes up a kinship with Chris, you see him pouring on the charm.
As good as Oram is, the breakout performance of the film belongs to Alice Lowe as the beleaguered Tina. Decades under her mother’s regime of vocal disapproval have left her with the emotional development of an adolescent in the body of a woman. Lowe brings a sweetness to moments where her newfound independence brings her moments of exuberance, such as her acting as Chris’ muse. Her emotional pendulum also swings in the opposite direction with a petulance veering into psychosis when upset. Where a three year old might toss a plate of vegetables when upset, Tina has the means to commandeer a two ton vehicle and steer it head on into an unsuspecting jogger. Where Chris takes a pragmatic approach to choosing and disposing of his targets, Alice is ruled by whatever whim flies into her head at the moment. Lowe brings a mixture of vulnerability, humor and and bull headedness to Tina that makes her a riot to watch.
If it weren’t for Wheatley’s tendency to have his characters bash others heads in with or against rocks, Sightseers would make for a wonderful tourism advertisement extolling the natural beauty of England. Chris and Mary may have tastes the veer towards the banal, but there’s no denying the beauty of the English countryside. While Sightseers might be light on overall horror, there are gruesome moments that offer a startling contrast to the picturesque settling. A beauty to behold, Sightseers is a treat for anyone that appreciates pitch black gallows humor.