There is a fine art to waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even in the early scenes of Sightseers there is a sense of menace, of things being decidely off, that cannot be accounted for simply by the cringe humor that the film's early scenes peddle in. There is the sense that at any moment the floor might give way underneath you. Ben Wheatly's previous film Kill List also trucked in such a sense, but while Kill List felt entirely subservient to its tacked on centeral gimmick, the punch line in Sightseers feels much more organic and hits all the harder.
Sightseers is centered on Tina, a British woman in her mid thirties who still lives with her relentlessly cruel mother. One of those people who is so beaten down, so used to being unhappy as a matter of routine, that the idea of taking a fairly mundane road trip in her boyfriend's RV in order to view the country side and some of England's duller museums, seems not merely an escape but a promise of barely conceivably proportions.
So of course things immediately go sour. I'm not going to reveal just what happens in Sightseers, since as I said waiting for the shoe to drop is kind of the whole point (though it's probably not all that hard to figure out). Suffice it to say, though one might guess what Chris's particular tic is, there is no preparation for how fast and how far things curdle. People like to throw around the term chemistry when it comes to relationships, forgetting that chemistry can also produce a noxious cloud. What happens between Tina and Chris is absolutely toxic, they bring out the worst in eachother allowing them to go places they never would have dared on their own.
Wheatly's stroke of brilliance is that he portrays all of this fairly low key. It's easy to imagine a hyped up American version, proud of how shocking and subversive its being. Indeed one can name more than a handful of films that follow Sightseers basic pattern. Wheatly on the other hand treats the whole thing like a comedy of manners. There's certainly some nasty business in Sightseers, but Wheatly doesn't underline it, he lets the characters actions speak for themselves. They're not trying to make any big statement. They're not trying to be subversive. They're just trying to go on holiday and they can't figure out why all this other stuff keeps getting in the way. They're just dealing with it as it comes. It's not that Wheatly is pulling any punches, he gets right up into the nitty gritty of their actions (and in one scene is even able to make the tired old cue Season Of The Witch send chills up the spine) It's this very lack of romanticism that makes Sightseers memorable. Have the same actions done by "romantic" outlaws and you'd just have another run of the mill Doom Generation want to be. But the sight of a pair of homely, somewhat doughy, British thirty somethings doing what Tina and Chris do is somehow appalling. It's like watching Tim and Dawngo on a killing spree. And frankly we expect better of the British.
Sightseers is a ghastly truly black comedy (you know you've got a good dark comedy when one of the best punchlines is a groan of disapointment when it's revealed someone hasn't died). Wheatly's made three distinct films in three genres in three years. There's something distinctly Mephistophilian about that pace. I may not have loved all of them, but he's emerging as one of the most distinctive English filmmakers working today, I look forward to what he does next with equal parts dread and anticipation.