SightseersReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/11/12 16:13:00
Ben Wheatley's previous two films weren't everyone's cup of tea, and he hasn't exactly gone conventional with "Sightseers". It's quite often as funny as it is twisted (or, perhaps, vice versa), overflowing with strange, messy, disturbing romantic comedy.Tina (Alice Lowe) and Chris (Steve Oram) are going on holiday after being together for a few months, despite the protestations of Tina's mother Carol (Eileen Davis). Odd, considering the pair are in their mid-thirties, but it comes as no surprise that neither has dated much; they've got that way about them. As much as Tina's the one who has seldom left her mother's side, Chris's outsized reaction to someone at the tram museum littering is the first hint that their caravan trip through minor tourist sites in the English countryside is going to be far out of the ordinary.
(Note for my fellow Americans: "caravan" is British for "camper" or "trailer".)
The term "dark comedy" covers a lot of ground, and Sightseers manages to walk most of it. It's one thing for the audience to laugh at something that is objectively horrible because the joke has been set up so well, and the movie does that often and well (often setting it up as the opposite of a joke). That's impressive, but perhaps the niftier trick is how Wheatley and co-writer/co-stars Lowe & Oram twist things so that the audience winds up seeing the road-trip/romantic comedy movie from a decidedly skewed perspective. The weird focus is funny, but not in a snarky, laugh-at-the-form sort of way. The filmmakers are very careful not to drift into parody or cool amorality.
After all, the parts Oram & Lowe have written for themselves aren't really cool at all. They're self-conscious, not used to being respected, and apt to say ill-considered things to keep silence from going on too long. Both the script and the performances do a fine job of working this vibe; Chris and Tina both start off as people that one might make a little effort to overlook. There's a nice push-and-pull between them as well; Tina's mousiness draws Chris out, for good or ill, and her eagerness to be accepted is part and parcel of her becoming less timid, which upsets the balance of the relationship a bit. The two are an excellent pair, but don't seem like too well-oiled a machine.
The plot is somewhat episodic, with other characters coming and going more or less in sequence. Elieen Davis's Carol is one of the most memorable, with Davis diving into an overtly nasty character whose flaws are right out there in the open compared to the rest. Each encounter with new characters at new locations tends to yield at least one big laugh and a new undercurrent of tension, with the ebb and flow between them handled very well indeed, even when there's bloody violence involved. One really fascinating thing about how the plot plays out is that learning more about the characters can make earlier scenes more interestingly ambiguous rather than making everything click into place.
Wheatley will show us a bit of mayhem but not linger on it (blood can work best when used sparingly). There's still plenty of edge to the story, the more traditional presentation actually makes it more effective at times: The picture is smooth, capturing the countryside's appeal without romanticizing it, and even when inside the caravan, things seldom seem claustrophobic or limited the way they may have in Wheatley's earlier movies.It's still very much a strange little movie, but not defiantly so. It's a rare dark, twisted comedy that often plays enough like something more familiar that the surprises are genuine, rather than just a different set of expectations.
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