Wednesday, January 29, 2014

SIGHTSEERS: Relationships Can Be Murder

Sightseers (2012)
Director: Ben Wheatley
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating: 7.5 / 10

Ben Wheatley has proven himself to be one of the more interesting filmmakers to emerge over the past few years, cranking out a series of films that blur the boundaries between crime, horror, and comedy. Down Terrace was an interesting portrayal of a degenerate family whose members were so toxic that it ended up undermining some of the dark humor of the film. Kill List was widely lauded upon its release, and was undeniably weird but somewhat uneven - a hallucinatory tale of a hitman taking an increasingly strange series of jobs that spiral into madness. If there's one thing Wheatley excels at, it's extracting horror from the mundane. Despite the fact that he shies away from anything supernatural, his films include enough violence and gore that he seems to have gained some notoriety in horror circles. I was hoping that in Sightseers he'd be able to strike more of a balance between the levity and the carnage.

The film begins by introducing us to Tina (Alice Lowe), a sheepish woman who lives with her controlling mother. Tina and her boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram) have planned a vacation across the English countryside in Chris's RV, with stops allotted for kitschy museums and historical sites alike. The trip seems to be going well until Chris accidentally runs over an obnoxious tourist. It's genuinely an accident, so the two see no reason to abort the trip, but Chris's murderous side begins to show itself again as he begins to dispatch all manner of yuppies, hippies, and upper-middle class tourist scum. Is this man really the person Tina thought she was dating, or will it turn out that they have even more in common than they initially thought?

Both Lowe and Oram are outstanding in their roles as Tina and Chris. Tina is dreadfully ordinary, and so passive that it's comical, while Chris wanders through most of the film as a ball of seething hate. Each is so disarmingly unremarkable at first that their eventual actions are all the more surprising. Adding to the shock factor is the gore. Having been familiar with Wheatley's previous films, it didn't catch me that off guard, but juxtaposed with the sarcasm and snappy editing, it's still startling. The problem is that Tina and Chris become increasingly unlikeable as the film proceeds, and the disintegration of their relationship makes the film an uncomfortable watch. There's still some excellent dark humor laced throughout, but it comes at the expense of watching some pretty abrasive behavior.

Wheatley can put together a really nice-looking film though, with credit also due to director of photography Laurie Rose, who has worked on all of Wheatley's prior projects. There are moments when the film lapses into a dreamlike state, most notably during one overnight stay where Tina and Chris camp next to some incessantly drumming pagans in the midst of a bloody drug-induced ritual. The landscapes of the English countryside are downright beautiful, and evoke the same sense of ancient brutality that Chris seems to embody. The idea that there is some regression to a Darwinian way of life taking place here is alluded to multiple times within the film, particularly during Chris's dreams where he and Tina clash in medieval times. But is this the reason for all the senseless bloodshed? Chris claims he has a system for determining who he kills, but is it that or just the consequence of an inadequate sense of masculinity brewing in an unstable mind? The skewering of traditional gender roles seems to be more prominent the more I think about the film, and I almost want to rewatch it and really pay attention to this the second time through.

But Sightseers works on a surface-level reading as well, and Tina's slow realization of her doomed relationship with Chris will be familiar to anyone who's ever been in a similar situation. When Tina does finally figure things out, it makes for a great ending that puts a twist on the bloody road films that have come before. Wheatley is clever, and is certainly a director I'll continue to watch. While Sightseers fell a little short of my hopes for it, it's another piece of evidence that Wheatley has a truly great film inside him somewhere, and I'm really eager to see where his career goes from here.

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