The families at the center of Ben Wheatley’s first two films, the remarkable Kill List and Down Terrace, were built and sustained on violence and crime; death, essentially, funds and begets the bloodline. Home is still a four-letter word in Sightseers, Wheatley’s third feature, but it’s made clear early on that one’s home no longer affords any sense of comfort, even the corrosive kind. As the film begins, Tina (Alice Lowe) is wrenching herself away from her clingy, scheming mother, Carol (Eileen Davis), with whom she shares a home, looking to get away on a holiday with her beau, Chris (Steve Oram). It seems like a natural tonic but just as Carol’s cheaply pretty and quaint home design disguises her cruelty and manipulation, the buttoned-up banality of Chris and Tina’s short vacation barely masks a truly wild return of the repressed.
In visual form, Wheatley is as unpredictable as he is abrasive: his editing often makes you feel as if he is aggressively pulling you by the collar, and his compositions favor the ugliness of traditional English homemaking. His subject matter often compliment these tendencies beautifully, perhaps none more so than Sightseers, which qualifies as a variation on the lovers-on-the-run plotline. At their first destination, Chris gleefully runs over and kills a fellow tourist for littering, though he feigns that it was an accident. The murder unnerves Tina at first, but as she begins to see how it excites him, she indulges the well of black blood that the years under her mother’s rule have brought to bare.
In a nifty twist, however, Chris is not scared but annoyed by his lover’s newfound blood-thirst, and Wheatley’s film begins to suggest a remake of The Honeymoon Killers with Mike Leigh at the helm. Tossed with bitter gallows humor, Sightseers is consistently inventive in its depravity and violent desperation, to a point where Wheatley is obviously taking more pleasure in the experience than the audience is. His satirical stab at the traditionally quiet vision of proper England, pointed as much at the monarchy as it is at the Merchant-Ivory generation, is refreshing up to a point and almost always funny, but its sense of agitated hopelessness feels strained.
As they amass a trail of dead, including a flirtatious bachelorette and a stuffy photographer, Tina and Chris don’t grow closer, as the former hopes, but separate, and the film becomes outright chaotic when he piques her jealousy. As in Wheatley’s former films, this state of narrative unrest is purposeful. Chris’s passive view of death and violence welcomes a far more feral and uncontrollable type of brutality in the guise of Tina, and he ultimately pays for it. As such, Wheatley’s latest serves as the outcome of the soft violence that modern British crime films deal in, and in terms of sheer genre work, the young director has it over nearly every British filmmaker currently at work. (Notable exception: the great Edgar Wright, who serves as producer here.) Indeed, Wheatley sees a rigid sense of propriety as just as much the mark of the beast as aggressive dominance, and goes on to suggest that they are one in the same, both in the movies and on the road.