Tourist Trap: Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers (2012) – Blu-ray review
A sly, half-mocking/half-admiring celebration of the urge to pay your bags and get away, which marks Wheatley as Britain’s greatest young filmmaker.
(Ben Wheatley, 2012)
The worst period of my childhood was the year my parents bought a caravan and decided to drag me around Britain on a series of drab, claustrophobic holidays to muddy fields and National Trust ruins. My waterlogged memories of that time come complete with the sheer bafflement of wondering what the denizens of caravan parks – the cagoule-wearing, booted and bearded eccentrics who thrived on upping sticks in a cramped mobile home – got out of it. Now I know: murder.
Ben Wheatley’s third film in little over three years (and, amazingly, his third triumph) after Down Terrace and Kill List is a black comedy that imagines two such sightseers finding time to indulge in the odd spot of serial killing while travelling to sights such as the National Tramway Museum and the Cumberland Pencil Museum. That brief makes it sound a fairly reductive, one-joke exercise, but stars & writers Steve Oram and Alice Lowe mine a rich seam of psychological insight to explore what happens these people tick.
It’s a tongue-in-cheek reverie about freedom and self-determination, a clash of wild dreams and banal reality about getting away from the strictures of society into the bucolic idyll that William Blake wrote about in Jerusalem – and, lo and behold, that very poem makes an appearance during the film’s most gruesome set-piece, intoned by some unknown narrator as the killers’(selfish, petulant, horrifically violent) acts are recast as the noble, mythic deeds of pagan pioneers, forging a brave new world.
Clearly, that’s how Chris (Oram) would like to see himself: a defender of age-old rights and privileges that have got lost amidst the rudeness of modern society. His first victim is a litter bug, suggesting a guy who rails against bad manners: a beanie-wearing update of Serial Mom. Yet the rug is cleverly pulled; with each subsequent victim, it’s obvious that he’s making this up as he goes along, reacting to each transgression based on his own inadequacies.
The crux is what happens when his naive, closeted girlfriend Tina (Alice Lowe) finds out what he’s been up to – and that’s when things really get interesting. What happens is somebody sees only the illicit thrill in casting off their shackles? Everybody goes on holiday to get away, but for these two, bullied and scorned in real life, the tourist trail represents payback.
Wheatley totally gets this kind of satire, coming fresh off Kill List – a film that similarly dealt with a road trip to bump off various symbols of British life. Sightseers isn’t as overtly radical as that film’s shifts in tone, but Wheatley achieves something that’s arguably harder to pull off: it’s consistently layered, retaining the warmth of its Mike Leigh-esque central pairing (think Nuts In May) even as the bodycount mounts up. He’s developed a formidably deadpan visual style that hangs back just the right distance from his characters to invite sympathy and shock as events dictate. It is realistic without being verite, agile without being overblown: check out the sequence where Chris stalks a potential victim across the Peak District’s hills, which is earthy and suspenseful, beautiful and darkly comic.
That said, Wheatley’s best move is to allow Oram and Lowe to own the film. The heart of the film lies in their witheringly accurate portrayal of a couple who are outwardly boring, yet a source of amazement to each other. The surface details – the monotone voices, the downcast faces, the terrible fashions – simply melt away when Oram and Lowe are in full flow. Chris and Tina are having so much fun that, suddenly, their freewheeling attitude to life becomes rather seductive… until Wheatley inflicts another spot of cranial damage onto an unsuspecting bystander to repaint Britain’s caravan parks as voluntary prisons for the country’s lunatic fringe.