Ben Wheatley was present for a preview screening of his latest film Sightseers and introduced the film by joking that “it was made with cynicism…there were lots of focus groups”. This statement sums up Wheatley’s work quite well. Having worked as a writer on comedy series such as Modern Toss and The Wrong Door, his first foray into film as co-writer/director was 2009’s Down Terrace.
The film is a deadpan and amusing crime thriller about a father and son that are released from prison, to find nothing but dysfunction in the family they were once such stern patriarchs of. His outstanding 2011 follow up Kill List – a seamless blend of hitman thriller and pagan horror – is even less focus-group friendly. Wheatley explains before the screening that he seeks to tease the brutal out of the bland or everyday; in the case of Sightseers he mashes together serial killers and caravanning holidays.
Sightseers opens to a collection of framed photos of a dog hanging on a distinctly manky looking living room wall; accompanied by the moans of a middle-aged woman. They are coming from Carol (Eileen Davies) who is upset because she has lost her “only friend”; the dog in the photographs, which she is adamant her daughter Tina (co-writer Alice Lowe) has murdered. We soon learn that Carol’s favourite past time is having a moan; that and keeping her daughter under her rule in the most passive-aggressive ways possible.
This weird domestic atmosphere is interrupted by the arrival of Tina’s boyfriend, Chris (played by Lowe’s co-writer, Steve Oram). He’s really into caravanning and wants to take Tina on a well-trodden route through Yorkshire for their first holiday together. As we’ve come to expect from Wheatley the film feels very authentic, in that the characters and locations feel like they could have been plucked out of any British suburb. The film isn’t self-consciously gritty or British though, in the way that leaves many British films feeling ultimately glossy and like they’ve been churned out of the Hollywood machine. Wheatley is quizzed on the ‘British-ness’ of the film in the Q & A following the screening, and he explains that there was no conscious decision to give the film a certain feel; they just made the film in the locations they know with the characters they have encountered in their lives.
Once the couple are on their way they meet a host of fellow caravanning enthusiasts: from an eco-warrior who scalds Tina for giving his dog a crisp (“Our dog doesn’t eat junk food!”) to a zealous National Trust fan. It is also revealed that Chris seems to have some murderous tendencies. The film balances its comedy and horror elements very well (and the murders are brutal). This is mostly thanks to the fact that Tina and Chris make a great double-team: Tina the baffled-by-the-world 30-something whose mother has kept her in a bubble all her life, and Chris the misanthrope who just wants to be able to enjoy a trip to the tram museum without having to put up with idiots and litterbugs. You can really feel that Oram and Lowe wrote the script, and spent a week together in a caravan whilst doing so; an experience Oram jokes, “I would rather not talk about”. The film also paints an amusing picture of hikers and UK holiday-makers, from the murderous ones to the eco-warriors and the pagan stoners who bite chickens heads off. All these elements are used to create some hilarious scenes.
As the holiday draws to a close, and Tina becomes a little too enthusiastic about her boyfriend’s ‘hobby’, what has been a touching love story between the two of them (amidst all the murder) progresses to reveal some painful truths about relationships: the feeling that your partner is better than you, and how love can so easily foster resentments. This is evident in Wheatley’s description of the couple as an “inverted Adam and Eve”. The final scene brings what could have been a confused film to a satisfying confusion, as we’ve been taken on a hilarious journey through the British countryside with a couple of weirdos who are still identifiable. The film is brutal in places, but as Wheatley explains in the Q & A: “The end game is to laugh”. We did, a lot.
Sightseers is out in cinemas on November 30th.
words Anthony Brandon