British director Ben Wheatley and his writing and living partner Amy Jump have done three feature films now, all making use of a fresh blend of the domestic and banal with the brutal and criminal. Wheatley’s debut, Down Terrace, focused on the squabbles of a minor gangland family. Kill List, less purely talky and more overtly violent, as well as wittier and more complex, revolved around contract killers who sometimes went beyond the call of duty in carrying out their assigned tasks. There was also a thread of cult ritual (briefly introduced in this new film). Sightseers, a violent and surreal black comedy, follows the romantic caravan trip around to minor Yorkshire tourist sites by a (somewhat) young couple who, while having good sex, quickly turn into serial killers (the killings seem to turn them on, as one might expect). Or more likely Chris (Steve Oram), as something he lets fall later suggests, already was a serial killer to begin with, if not so prolific as now, and his girlfriend Tina (Alice Lowe) turns into one to please Chris, though he finds her methods too random and illogical. He has a plan, he claims, and she doesn’t. That’s debatable: is it more sane to kill a man for refusing to pick up his litter, than to do a young bride in on her bachelor girls night out for kissing your boyfriend? This recalls Gal’s remark to Jay (the operatives in Kill List): “You’re well off your list now, mate.”
Wheatley is interested in the mundaneness of evil and also the rules it follows. Sightseers isn’t quite as interesting a film as Kill List, but there’s a strength in its claustrophobic focus, which I found nauseating, as well as its constant surprises and palpable danger. Horror may be more disturbing when it’s combined with comedy. And maybe there’s something peculiarly English about offing somebody for being arrogantly untidy — or, conversely for being arrogant (in a public school accent) about one’s own untidiness. Or just for exuding an upper class, educated snottiness. Brits can be prickly, if they don’t normally carry their prickliness this far. Wheatley gets at the child inside the adult, only his couple not only wish those they don’t like dead, as any child does: they go right ahead and kill them. Luckily, the world is not like this. Or is it? The murderous couple in Sightseers makes you long for the paid killers, who are doing a job. There’s a comfort in professionalism. But we know full well that there are random killers out there of all stripes.
With Wheatley’s very British art the devil is in the details and in the dialogue. There is something Pinteresque about Wheatley’s toxic scenes of domestic life. None more toxic than Tina’s controlling Mum. Sightseers opens with a long animal wail, which turns out to be Mum (Eileen Davies, a Mike Leigh regular) grieving for their dead dog, Poppy, her only friend, she says. Tina doesn’t qualify. She’s not a friend, only a relative. The Brits do love their dogs. Later a snotty couple with a newer caravan will suffer a death at Chris’s hands, and he and Tina will go off with the couple’s dog, Banjo, which closely resembles Poppy. Chris and Tina, apart from their active homicidal tendencies, are not as interesting as the characters in Kill List, though their behaviour is meant to surprise and would not do so were they not so ordinary on the surface. And as Mum tips us off to at the start, the ordinariness here, as in Mike Leigh, has a highly neurotic underside.
It was a conscious risk for Wheatley to take his feature film horror-and-mundane blend into the risky area of comedy, and I did not find myself laughing out loud very often, though that could vary from viewing to viewing and the writing is certainly droll throughout. In departing completely also from gangsters in favour of mere psychopaths, Wheatley has lost some level of perverse criminal logic, and Chris and Tina’s killing spree seems inexplicable, even if that’s part of the joke. There is a rather obvious irony in using light-hearted pop tunes to link sequences, not quite worthy of the cleverness of everything else. On the other hand the cinematography provides us not only with very specific images of the tram museum, the pencil museum, a cave, and so on, but some glorious spreads of green English countryside to show in some deeply ironic way this is a romantic journey.
Despite its general success with critics and the British public, with a US release six months later, I maintain that after Kill List Sightseers is a bit of a misstep. This may be due to the different less purely “auteur” authorship. This time Lowe and Oram, whose performances are spot-on, are also credited with the screenplay, based apparently on skits they’ve been doing together for years, and Amy Jump is credited with “additional material.” Oram has said Jump polished the raw material he and Lowe provided, but it did not, as before, begin with Jump and Wheatley alone. However, from minute to minute and scene to scene Wheatley is still definitely a filmmaker who is bracingly original no matter what genre blends he chooses to work in. And one of the pleasures even for an American viewer is the deeply English flavour of Wheatley’s films, further enhanced here by the class clashes and the focus on oddball Yorkshire sights, Chris’ “world” he aims to “show” his girlfriend. He does that alright, and what a world.
That Sightseers got made, despite its ultra-darkness, is partly due to the presence of Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as a producer. The film premiered at Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 2012. I go along with the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw in his Nov 2012 re-assessment that this isn’t “laugh-out-loud funny” as adverts claimed or as original and unclassifiable as Kill List, but that “The chilling and transgressive flourishes are carried off with deadpan confidence; it’s a distinctive and brutally unsettling piece of work.” Screened for this review in a Landmark Theater in Berkeley, California.
DIRECTOR: BEN WHEATLEY
STARS: ALICE LOWE, EILEEN DAVIS, STEVE OREM JONATHAN ARIS, MONICA DOLAN, RICHARD LUMSDEN, SARA STEWART, TONY WAY
RUNTIME: 88 MIN