Morbid fascinations

Black comedy, "Sightseers", is good enough to survive the hype

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Hyperbole can kill a film before it’s even released, but Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, which opened last week in the UK, is good enough to survive its radioactively glowing reviews. You will surely know by now that it is a macabre comedy about a lonely woman, Tina (Alice Lowe), who escapes her clawing, clinging mother (Eileen Davies) to go on a caravanning holiday with her extravagantly-bearded boyfriend, Chris (Steve Oram). Death and mourning pervade Tina’s life long before Chris arrives: the accidental demise a year earlier of her mother’s beloved terrier (“My only friend,” the elderly woman confesses spitefully to Tina in between bouts of grief-stricken caterwauling) has rendered the domestic atmosphere oppressively morbid. Anything would resemble emancipation, even a killing spree, which is what the country getaway quickly turns into.

The triggers are those misdemeanours that will gnaw away at any sane-minded soul: litterbugs, show-offs, anyone in fact who stirs our own sense of injustice or inadequacy. That said, the film may have a special piquancy for viewers who know the territory. Peter Rosenthal, the travel and sites editor at Caravan Magazine, told the Guardian this week that the picture gets the particular annoyances of caravanning spot-on. “I remember one campsite manager who insisted that nobody was allowed to drive on to the ground after 8pm,” he said, before adding rather chillingly: “I wouldn’t mind seeing him get a spade to the back of the head.”

Although “sane-minded” is not a description which could be applied easily to Chris and Tina, the screenplay is astute in making them psychologically credible at every turn. Petty jealousies and nagging insecurities motivate the couple’s crimes. Even as their actions become increasingly and casually cruel, the toehold on reality is never forsaken. For this we can thank the attentive screenplay (by Amy Jump and the film’s two leads) which keeps the characters grounded. The film has been described by simply everyone as “Nuts in May meets Badlands” but, regardless of the validity of this, the screenwriters have definitely heeded lessons learned from Terrence Malick’s depiction of the dazed characters in the latter film. Malick told Sight and Sound magazine in 1975:

“The movies have kept up a myth that suffering makes you deep. It inclines you to say deep things…It teaches you lessons you never forget. People who’ve suffered go around in movies with long, thoughtful faces, as though everything had caved in just yesterday. It’s not that way in real life, though, not always. Suffering can make you shallow and just the opposite of shallow, dense.”

As the audience, we find ourselves laughing and cringing frequently at Chris and Tina’s woes, their catastrophic misreadings and over-reactions, which makes it peculiarly touching when they enjoy some rare moments of levity between themselves. It’s quite a sophisticated trick to get us hoping that a pair of murderers will at least be able to have some relaxing time together unblighted by concerns about what to do about that body, or how to clean off that blood. I loved their giggly conversation together over dinner (Chris’s gleefully dirty chit-chat, his reference to “bin juice”—the liquid that seeps out of the bottom of the bin-bag). Those sorts of reprieves provide an emotional and tonal pit-stop, and show how expertly calibrated the film’s pace is.

I should mention also that Oram and Lowe give finely-textured performances, subtle and detailed even in the broadest scenes. It’s great comic-dramatic acting of a kind not generally acknowledged by awards bodies (though it was heartening to hear that Lowe was named Best Actress at the Catalonian International Film Festival, and the film is nominated in a range of categories, including acting, at this Sunday’s British Independent Film Awards).

Wheatley (who also made Down Terrace and Kill List) does not lack for acclaim; he’s this country’s foremost critical darling. But I hope that the rich cinematography by his regular collaborator Laurie Rose, so vital to the character of the movie, does not go unnoticed. Those craggy, marshy landscapes, as seen through Rose’s appreciative but slightly wary lens, made me think of other case studies about rampaging maniacs on the loose in the British countryside—Witchfinder General, say, or Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip.

"Sightseers" is on release.


Image from the film, "Sightseers"

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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