Perhaps the most widely polarizing film in recent memory, Kill List, a kitchen-sink drama meets surreal cult horror hybrid, confirmed at least one thing for everyone who walked out of the theater, both awed and annoyed alike: Whether for good or for ill, Ben Wheatley is one of Britain’s most interesting contemporary filmmakers. And I suspect both admirers and detractors of Kill List will gravitate to his latest film, the, uh, horror-comedy/road-movie/satire/romance Sightseers, for precisely the same reason: Anything he’s produced is unlikely to be ordinary. It’s no surprise, then, that Sightseers is anything but, though for largely different reasons than one might expect—and to more lasting and commendable ends.
Unlike Kill List, Sightseers contains no sudden third-act narrative pivots intended to disarm or disorient, and one never has the sense that a second, tonally discordant film is lurking somewhere deep beneath the primary one’s obvious veneer. The film establishes its very particular (and particularly peculiar) rhythm early and never once veers away, which means it should ingratiate itself with audiences more readily and happily. Consistency, of course, suggests a comparative complacency, but what the film loses in narrative surprise it more than makes up for in coherency and cogency of vision; though the effect of Kill List’s surprise last-scene shift was jarring and bold, repeating its finishing move here would have corroborated any suspicions of shallow gimmickry, and nobody wants to be pegged as a one-trick horror pony this early into their career.
In a way, subverting his audiences expectations—of him as a filmmaker as much as of this particular film itself—is part of the point of making Sightseers so different in mood and style, and its most lasting achievement may in fact prove to be how capably it displays Wheatley’s stylistic and thematic range. If the law of diminishing returns dictates that a one-time shocker cannot be respectfully repeated, producing something radically different (even if ostensibly reigned-in) was the only way Wheatley could continue to surprise us. If Kill List showed promise, Sightseers more than follows through just by delivering pleasures uniquely its own.
That might make Sightseers sound relatively upbeat or predictable, but it only seems remotely conventional next to Kill List’s structural radicalism and galling aesthetic shifts. The truth is that it’s one of the stranger, more discomfiting films in recent memory, and probably the most tonally interesting comedy since In Bruges, with which it shares a knack for garish violence and idiot-savant wit. Like the hitmen who roam Sheffield in Kill List, the young couple at the center of Sightseers take a film-long tour through the northern British countryside, nattering ceaselessly and, soon after it begins, leaving an endless trail of corpses along the way. In a sense, it’s Bonnie and Clyde with a pair from Coronation Street, and the dissonance generated between the schlubby characters and their merciless actions alone is the source of the majority of the film’s laughs, of which there are very, very many.
Sightseers is probably the straight-up funniest film I’ve seen this year, full of bang-on one-liners (including a shrilly yelled “that is not my vagina!,” which I couldn’t provide context for if I tried), and clever sight gags. Mind you, Kill List had its share of great jokes, particularly during its opening scenes, but Wheatley here has the well-honed and carefully calibrated comic timing of a director with vastly more experience in the genre. Again, what that suggests should be clear: Not only is Ben Wheatley a director of interesting films, he’s now a director of many drastically different kinds of interesting films, his range apparently limitless. This is probably intentional (and if it is, he’s a savvy operator), but it doesn’t feel exactly calculated either. In any case, if the results are as spot-on as this, we ought to anxiously await the western, noir, and space-opera classics still to come.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6—16.