In Ben Wheatley’s films, everyone is a murderer. Irritable low-level mobsters, harried suburban hit men, persnickety serial killers—these demented egotists are all homicidal, always full of justifications for their brutal acts, and always ready to dispense them after the hammer has fallen. In Sightseers, a black-comic tale of tourism and slaughter set among the natural beauty and general dullness of northern England, there’s no shortage of self-serving rationalizations; one character muses that, as it reduces carbon footprints, murder is actually green. Yet despite the director’s heavy reliance on humor, working from a funny script by stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, he remains serious in his fixations, again picking at the nasty scabs that speckle the human soul.
Picking up new girlfriend Tina (Lowe) at the home of her shrill hypochondriac mother, Chris (Oram) intends to show her the simple pleasures of a rural caravanning vacation, with a schedule spanning a ruined monastery, some misty moors, and a museum dedicated to pencils. Arrogant and insecure, Steve also has problems with anger, which means sneakily resorting to surreptitious slayings over the most trivial slights or offenses. This would seem to pose a problem for the seemingly naïve Alice, but her initial bewilderment quickly gives way to a desire to impress her new beau, which means taking to murder with a sloppy, childish glee. Her enthusiasm ends up straining their relationship, not for any ethical reason, but for the differences in their methods; British to his core, Chris has firm, unshakable opinions about the proper methods and validations for dealing death.
The key to Wheatley’s aesthetic lies in the utter moral bankruptcy of all his characters. The director uses the ease with which acts of violence are employed to explore the darkness within the shriveled hearts of prickly oddballs, who he further uses to poke fun at the fastidious stodginess of English society. A stylistic jack of all trades, he swerves wildly between genres here once again, and his satire is equally expansive in its modes, skittering from condemnatory cultural critique to good-natured ribbing, while also slotting in moments of actual pathos. Sightseers has drawn obvious comparisons to Nuts in May, but it more clearly resembles all of Mike Leigh’s films tossed into a blender.
This sardonic depiction of Britain, as a land where a thin veneer of strained politesse and fussy specificity of tastes masks a throbbing heart of darkness, makes for Wheatley’s best film yet. Connecting his homicidal couple’s current agenda to the looming influence of England’s voluminous past, he imagines the extremes of barbaric primitivism and genteel civility as two sides of the same spectrum, with the latter mostly compensating for the continued existence of the former. In doing this, Wheatley locates something deliciously sinister in the remnants of that Victorian personality, brilliantly couching the roots of his film’s violence not in psychosis, but in everyday close-mindedness, pinpointing how aggression gets sublimated within the standards of polite behavior.
The butt of this joke is Chris, who frames his killings as acts of civic responsibility: one victim gets run over for littering on a historic tram; later, attempting to justify a hiker’s bashed-in skull, the red-bearded butcher comments, “He’s not a person, he’s a Daily Mail reader.” Tina, meanwhile, is random and impulsive in her attacks, and the idea of killing out of desire rather than to enforce a system of obligatory civility flies in the face of Chris’s entire meticulous system. By locating the tension here, Wheatley and his writers establish a comedic engine that’s also located at the core of the film’s ideas.
So while the jokes are often silly (including a few too many animal reaction shots), the points they’re making are never trivial, further indicated by Wheatley’s deft juggling of styles and his increasingly potent mise-en-scène, particularly in a series of wordless montages and one eerie dream sequence. Through evocate mentions of witchcraft and images of old bones, sacrificial pyres and ancient ruins, Wheatley establishes a deep, disturbing context for a potentially frivolous story, just as he did with the climactic cultic nightmare of Kill List, or the traditional folk tunes undergirding the familial infighting of Down Terrace.
As in those films, the weight of the past provides both historical template and a meager excuse for the characters’ brutal actions, while also linking up to their present despair. Chris and Tina go on vacation in search of something new, both in each other and in the living ruins of their culture’s past, but they only encounter the same irritating frustrations, repeatedly reminded of their personal failings. Wheatley mirrors their quest by cycling through a battery of familiar genre modes, sampling tropes and then tossing them aside. It’s a process which serves as the formal equivalent of his narrative satire, a depiction that classifies his homeland as a fussy, fragile land of sour curmudgeons, whose clannish insistence on their own specific renderings of the rules of civility acts as a thick curtain drawn against the heaving force of base animal natures.