Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Carry on Killing

Steve Oram and Alice Lowe as the Sightseers. Courtesy of Studio Canal
It's fair to say that I was very much looking forward to Sightseers. Director Ben Wheatley's last film Kill List was one I greatly admired as a strange, unsettling and blackly comic delight (although delight might not be the optimal word for a film as exhausting as Kill List). I was very keen to discover what Wheatley did next, and luckily didn't have to wait too long, as it's been just over a year between his two films. Add to that positive early word from Cannes and various other film festivals, plus a suitably ecstatic introduction from Dublin Film Festival's Grainne Humphrey before the lights dimmed at Sightseer's Irish premiere. Alas - the dangers of hype! I wouldn't say that I didn't enjoy the ninety minutes of amusing cinema that followed, because I certainly did, but perhaps my own personal expectations were set unreasonably high.

Sightseers recounts the crazy misadventures of Tina (Alice Lowe) and Chris (Steve Oram) - a thirty-something couple on their first caravan trip away together. This could well be Tina's first time away from her demanding, possessive mother, and she's certainly relishing the opportunity to escape the confines of her depressing homestead (she's also recently been mentally scarred by the death of the family dog in a horrific knitting-related accident). Alas, things turn quickly sour when Chris accidentally runs over and kills an oafish tourist at a rural British tram museum. The lovebirds consider abandoning the trip, but if anything the accident only encourages them to hit the road with more gusto. It's not long before we realise that Chris may be a little more bloodthirsty than it initially appeared, and Tina is all too eager to please her potentially psychotic boyfriend.

I'm a glass half-full sort of guy, so let me further pre-empt the inevitable downer by observing what Sightseers undoubtedly gets right. For a comedy, it definitely has bite. Like Kill List, there's a playful underlying 'working class revenge thriller' vibe going on - a lighthearted subversion of everyday tropes and prissy Britishness that isn't entirely divorced from current social and economic concerns. The relationship that develops between Tina and Chris - Lowe and Oram, incidentally, are also the film's co-writers - is a witty one, rife with satirical potential. Chris is a killer, but will only inflict hyperviolence upon those he feels deserve moral retribution or have done him wrong in some way (his criteria are rather loose, of course). He'll just as readily go for pints with his neighbouring eco-warrior than indulge his murderous impulses. Tina, meanwhile, misunderstands the motivations of her lover and starts lashing out through sheer jealousy, rage and impulse - which, amusingly, completely disgusts Chris. It's a silly and fun dynamic, well realised by Lowe and Oram, and the film has a lot of fun with the concept in the second-half particularly, leading to a pitch-perfect conclusion - a film that doesn't stay one frame longer than is required.

Wheatley's presence is initially not as obviously felt behind the camera, although as the film progresses this is very evidently the work of the guy who gave us Kill List. Most notably is a brilliant montage following Chris' first act of violent insanity. Cutting rabidly between images of a pagan ritual, scenes of the British countryside and general scenes of exaggerated barbarity, it's a reminder of some of Kill List's more nightmarish sequences, albeit this time delivered in a different sort of context. It's a welcome burst of visual flair in a film that mostly sticks with a rigidly kitchen-sink aestethic (the film is both a homage and satire of Mike Leigh films and any number of other cinematic jaunts through Britain), and while there's some nice cinematography throughout (taking in such British tourists hotspots as the world famous Pencil Museum), it's somewhat of a shame the sequence is a once-off. A late film attempt at a dream sequence is comparatively inelegant. There are other subtle directorial touches, though: as discussed by Wheatley in the post-film Q&A, the soundtrack - dominated by electronic pop covers of Tainted Love and Season of the Witch - hides an extra layer of depth, with the film cleverly alternating between male and female vocalists as Tina and Chris' relationship fluctuates in terms of dominance.

So I definitely have nice things to say about Sightseers - it's cheekily eccentric and oftentimes endearingly clever. And yet, overall, I just felt a little underwhelmed by the whole thing. Perhaps the biggest problems is that it just isn't a laugh riot. The film flits back and forth between the broadest imaginable comedy and blackly comic ultraviolence, with the side effect that it's only ever fleetingly amusing. There's some very funny scenes - a madcap love scene and a brilliant jealous argument in the caravan stand out - but mostly I found myself lightly chuckling as opposed to full-on belly laughs. The killing spree, meanwhile, is occasionally grotesque - including a genuinely horrific shot of a crushed skull - but also sort of dull, predictable and pedestrian. When a character is introduced, you usually know whether they're about to be dispatched or not, and the violence becomes almost routine despite the fact the violence is rendered in bone-crunching detail. Admittedly, the narrative sometimes jokingly reflects the fact that mass murder has become so trivial for the characters, but like God Bless America recently, shock humour loses much of its power when you can see all of the surprises coming.

Sightseers is a vastly superior film than God Bless America, but there's the sense that if the writers had dared to be even more provocative there's a great film waiting to burst out and amaze us all. Instead, we have a merely pretty good film - lots to enjoy, but the film's unusual cocktail of purposefully mundane roadtrip, oddball romance, broad comedy and murder spree doesn't gel together into a fully coherent whole. Again, I cannot rule out the possibility my personal hype was ultimately detrimental (was relieved to hear Time Out expressing such a view too, though). There's undoubtedly much to appreciate here, but I can't help but express disappointment that Sightseers is simply, merely, disposably good fun. Maybe that's more than enough?

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