Studio: IFC Films
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, Amy Jump
Producer: Nira Park, Claire Jones, Andy Starke
Stars: Alice Lowe, Steve Oram
While on a caravan holiday, Tina discovers that her new boyfriend Chris has a permanent way of dealing with people that annoy him.
Tina is one pet cat away from miring herself in the depressive rut of a spinster. Her elderly mother Carol occupies each day by crafting ways to elicit Tina’s sympathy and make herself as deliberately burdensome as possible. Things have not been the same in the Read household since Carol’s beloved dog Poppy impaled himself on a pair of errantly placed knitting needles. While technically the fault of Tina the sewing enthusiast, Carol makes sure her daughter is reminded of the accident constantly by moaning pitifully and referring to Tina as, “murderer.”
Unknowingly, Carol is on to something by crowning her daughter with that moniker. Adding to Mama Read’s omnipresent disdain is the meddlesome appearance of Tina’s new boyfriend Chris. Even though the pair has only been dating for a scant three months, Chris has a road trip holiday on tap for his new love as the couple plans a personal sightseeing tour via caravan. Mother may disapprove, but the countryside getaway is just what the doctor ordered as a remedy for Tina’s mundane life of an average homebody.
Bearded Chris is a perfect match for Tina with his ordinary appearance and the outward personality of a common everyman. Like any common everyman, Chris has his otherwise jovial mood occasionally sullied by life’s minor annoyances. Unlike that ordinary everyman though, Chris has a more difficult time shaking off nagging hassles and soldiering on. On just its first stop, the caravan claims an unfortunate victim of Chris’ ire and the body count keeps climbing at each stop thereafter.
Strangely, Tina is not bothered for very long by Chris’ permanent manner of handling temporary inconveniences. Quite the contrary. Not only does it make her man more magnetic, but it also taps into her dormant dark side. Thanks to years of unending repression suffered at the hands of her mother, that dark side has fermented into something just as twisted as Chris’ warped sense of morality.
Pigeonholing “Sightseers” as a straight comedy is not entirely accurate. Neither is a classification as horror, really. “Quirky” is another adjective likely to be assigned, but that too falls outside the bullseye. The film’s personality is too subdued to qualify as quirky since its charm operates outside of a conscious level. At its heart, and “Sightseers” definitely has one, the film is a romance. It may be a demented romance, but it is a love story before it is anything else.
“Sightseers” is partially the black comedy equivalent of the Michael Douglas starrer “Falling Down.” In “Falling Down,” the final straw that broke D-Fens’ back was not a major event or scarring tragedy. It was a pileup of those unavoidable daily annoyances that plague everyone at one time or another. Traffic. Rudeness. Accidents of timing. Society’s unwritten rules say to ignore the toll taken by these little slights and move along. But sometimes, even a sane person reaches a boiling point where ignoring the umbrage feels like a greater crime.
Tina’s boyfriend feels that way. Chris is what a less cantankerous Larry David would be like if the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” character/star had murderous tendencies. Chris and Tina occupy a real world where homicide still has consequences. It is just that teaching manners to others and sorting through their relationship with each other are more immediate concerns.
It comes as no surprise that stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram are also the scriptwriters. They visibly embody the unspoken nuances that drip without words behind their portrayals of Tina and Chris. Tina wears the expression of a wearied middle-ager wondering which is the more tolerable life: putting up with an intolerable mother, or convincing herself that she has hit “good enough” and settling with a serial killer. Chris mulls over similar prospects. How likely is he to find another woman willing to put up with an unending string of blood and bodies?
Aiding the humor immensely is a camera that always knows where to position itself for maximum comedic effect. The gags are left to their own strengths when the lens sets up wide and lets the absurdity fill the entirety of the frame. Well-timed and sparingly used slow motion takes the laughs further still. Visually, “Sightseers” knows how to stage itself while avoiding over-the-top slapstick or any ham-handed groaners. The script and characters have free reign to breathe on their own, and that is what gives “Sightseers” its unique character.
I sat on the fence of uncertainty for most of the film. It was not until the credits rolled that I realized how much I enjoyed “Sightseers.” Ben Wheatley’s film is a black comedy without a middle ground. It is one of those experiences that will either click with the viewer or make him/her as annoyed as Chris. The key is to understand that this is not a broad appeal laugh riot. Despite the subject matter, comedic flourishes are subtle and tightly focused. While fellow caravaners look over their shoulders for a rock-wielding Chris, beware “Sightseers.” It has a way of creeping up to strike without anyone even noticing.
Review Score: 85