Rating:A deep, keening moan wreaks havoc in the first shots of Sightseers. Close-ups of a countryside trip are mapped out on a genuine, physical map, fingers wrapping yarn around thumbtacked destinations to sketch out routes. The fingers belong to Tina (Alice Lowe), a weathered but chipper thirtysomething preparing to go on holiday with her new boyfriend, Chris (Steve Oram). The moan belongs to her mother, Carol (Eileen Davies), who stares at her daughter through the slits of narrowed eyes. Instantly plunging the film into an abyss, Carol snipes at her daughter over “abandoning her” and makes cryptic references to the fate of her dog. When Chris arrives with his caravan to whisk away his belle, Carol acidly tells the man she does not like him and informs her daughter she was an accident before the two can roll up the car window and escape this suffocating Birmingham suburb.
The relentless cruelty of these first few minutes, the caricatured kitchen-sink family drama encased in suffocating, muted browns, proves so agonizingly dark the film actually lightens up considerably when the couple gets out in the English countryside and start killing people. Their murderous spree at least gives Ben Wheatley’s mordant comedy some sort of foothold, especially as Chris and Tina look for justification for their crimes, ranging from rants of keeping England’s tourist spots clean to a projection of class angst that dubiously links an innocent middle-class victim to prima nocte-abusing lords of old, turning a senseless murder into a defense of Tina’s honor. Where the opening threatens to stew in hateful stereotypes for no purpose, the resultant homicides clarify what initially seems a mocking view of working-class Brummies by digging into their miserable lives to draw out the pent-up rage hidden in their blank faces.
Lowe and Oram’s chemistry keeps their characters’ rapid escalation from meek campers to unstoppable killers grounded in their naturalistic demeanors. Chris and Tina’s drabness is on display in every frame: Oram’s paunchy frame gives him a boyishness that is somehow only compounded by his thick beard, while Lowe wears Tina’s weariness in her face, still youthful but prematurely aged by heavy expressions and the occasionally unforgiving cinematography. Only two people as relentlessly unremarkable as they are could be so liberated by their cramped caravan and stops at tram and pencil museums, and only two people as repressed in their quest for happiness could seethe with such vicious loathing over a discarded wrapper or graffiti mucking up medieval stoneworks.
These are not people with dreams deferred but people who never dreamed at all, and Wheatley scores his bleakest comedy in the mildly irritated, quintessentially British manner in which they address their horrific actions. Their first bit of violence is unintentional, with Chris accidentally backing over a man, but his reaction—”He’s ruined the tram museum for me, now”—points to how easily he, and later Tina, will turn to brutality. Chris practically turns murder into a matter of civic duty; when Tina thanks him for “defending” her from the aforementioned middle-class man, Chris cheerily replies, “Don’t thank me, thank the democratic process.”
The lovers eventually start to squabble over their deeds, particularly when they start running out of reasons for their killing, but Wheatley draws the most discomfort from calmer interactions. Chris and Tina force themselves into a richer couple’s nicer caravan, with wood panel flooring and useless but mesmerizing voice-activated gadgets, leading to a tense standoff of the protagonists’ naked envy and the other couple’s condescending superiority. The unbearable suspense of the moment pays off in the deliberate breaking of a plate that proves more jolting than the murder that subsequently resolves the conflict between the two parties. In Sightseers, deaths make for shock-inducing laughs, but the film is at its funniest in the spaces around its carnage, less for the punchline of the littering man being run over by mistake than in the casual way Chris washes his blood off the caravan’s tires so that his and Tina’s dinner isn’t spoiled. Their spree begs comparison to Badlands, but the perverted sense of American freedom is replaced by a dour, constrained English sensibility. Even the final action swaps Romantic fatalism for wry practicality, hilariously undermining the poetic annihilation of lovers-on-the-lam stories for the sake of one last macabre joke.