Sightseers

2012, Movie, NR, 98 mins

Review

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After making a big splash with the darkly comic Down Terrace in 2009 and taking a hard left-turn into horror with Kill List two years later, emerging British talent Ben Wheatley triumphantly returns to the realm of black comedy with Sightseers, a partially improvised comedy based on endearingly psychotic characters created by stars Alice Lowe (Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Hot Fuzz) and Steve Oram (It’s All Gone Pete Tong). Caustically funny even before the main plot kicks in, this tightly directed tale of two unlikely serial killers stalking the British countryside alternates seamlessly between scripted and spontaneous laughs while casually side-stepping the usual cliches.

His girlfriend Tina (Lowe) having led a particularly sheltered life, Chris (Oram) packs up his cherished Abbey Oxford Caravan, and prepares to take her on a guided tour of his favorite destinations. The Crich Tramway Museum, the Ribblehead Viaduct, and the Keswick Pencil Museum are all on his "must see" list, but along the way, they'll have a chance to breathe easy while soaking in the lush scenery of rural Britain. Not long after they hit the road, however, a series of minor irritations start to disrupt Chris' attempt to show Tina the perfect holiday. When he finally explodes, Tina sees a side of her new boyfriend that's at once terrifying, and strangely exciting.

As Chris and Tina, Oram and Lowe do a fantastic job of portraying the giddiness of their two characters in small flashes. Whether they’re simply lying on Tina’s bed in anticipation of the trip or playfully flirting once they’ve hit the road, there’s something about the two characters we instinctively want to like. And even once Chris has claimed his first victim -- an unrepentant litterbug who gets crushed under the wheels of his caravan -- we instinctively want to give him the benefit of the doubt, and write it off as an accident. But the more time we spend with Chris, the more obvious it becomes that something isn’t right with him, and that perhaps that incident in the parking lot wasn’t the first time he’s taken a life.

As the couple roll on, Oram does a fantastic job of showing Chris’ psychosis in brief glimpses, with Lowe playing it blissfully naïve until being confronted with irrefutable evidence of his character’s wrongdoings in a scene that may be the comic highlight of the whole film. It’s at that point where we begin to see another side of Tina as well, yet interestingly her motivations for killing are somewhat different, and it’s a testament to both actors that their chemistry still works even once they’ve cast off their masks. Meanwhile, a flashback to the tragic accident that took the life of Tina’s mother’s beloved dog provides the perfect amount of depth while fleshing out a joke that opens the film, and the couple’s continual encounters with a friendly camper with a unique tent keep us wondering exactly how far they’re willing to take their bloody killing spree.

Whereas many films of this ilk would lazily find the characters perversely bonded over their mutual love of mayhem, Oram and Lowe make it a point of contention between Chris and Tina. The character dynamics of this approach help to plunge the film into even darker territory, yet even then the comedy never misses a beat. Although much of that credit could be given to the two co-writers (along with third scribe Amy Jump) and stars, a fair amount also must go to Wheatley, who delivers on the promise made in Down Terrace by approaching the grim humor with expert timing and pacing. Wheatley’s deadly serious second feature, Kill List, established an effective atmosphere of dread during its intense buildup, though the film ultimately didn’t come together as a whole quite as nicely as Down Terrace, suggesting that dark comedy -- not outright horror -- may be the director’s true calling (even though his vampiric contribution to The ABCs of Death was a gruesome highlight of an otherwise lackluster horror anthology). Meanwhile, it all leads to a climax that will leave many gasping, even if it seems entirely logical in hindsight, making Sightseers an undeniable treat for lovers of morbid comedy. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan

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