If you need a high-concept pitch for Ben Wheatley’s third film, it’s Mike Leigh’s Nuts In May crossbred with Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Funny and horrible, it has that ghastly ring of truth which distinguishes Leigh’s sympathetic portraits of people you’d go out of your way to avoid, and yet finds room for video-nasty levels of carnage. Whereas Leigh lets conflicts and resentments simmer, exploding only in cutting insults or social gaffes, Wheatley lets the brakes off. Sightseers explores a contemporary Britain we can’t help but recognise, dotted with ridiculous ‘heritage’ spots like the Keswick Pencil Museum, and a mental landscape where priorities are seriously out of whack. “It’s no use,” whines sulky ginger sightseer Chris (Steve Oram) after the perhaps accidental, definitely bloody demise of a litter lout under the wheel of his caravan. “He’s ruined Crich Tramway Museum for me.”
Scripted by stars Alice Lowe and Oram, formerly you-know-the-face players with rafts of film and TV comedy credits (Lowe was one of the leads in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace), with additional material by editor Amy Jump, Sightseers is a showcase for both performers, who deliver awards-quality work as the oddest of odd couples. Escaping from a harridan mother who’ll never let her forget her responsibility for the absurd death of a much-loved dog, wallflower Tina at first seems a tagalong. However, as she realises how twisted her seemingly boring new boyfriend really is, she lets out her own wild side, whether in selecting sexy underwear to spice up the caravan-rocking nights with Chris or involving herself in incidents which inevitably pay off with someone who has crossed their path and annoyed them in some way winding up horribly dead. At first, there’s a sense that the corpses who litter the wet, green countryside are class enemies; then it becomes apparent that anyone might fall foul of one or other or both of these people and suffer the consequences, even people who commit the sin of being too much like them.
This makes for strange, sitcom clashes as Tina tries to match Chris’ exploits, though like all true anal-retentive sociopaths, he lives by a hard-to-explain code she finds it impossible to understand, let alone abide by. Bluntly, he’s mad because he wants always to be in control and she’s mad because she wants to embrace chaos. Whether or not a happy ending is possible, or desirable, is a question the film juggles deftly for much of its running time — and becomes all the more pressing when a rival for Chris’ attention comes along in the person of an equally boring, beardy fellow-traveller who has invented a bicycle-drawn ‘carapod’ that Tina thinks “looks like an alien’s coffin” but which tickles Chris’ fancy. Wheatley is confident enough to let the characters’ ‘issues’ emerge without the blunt instrument of backstory exposition — though, often, with any other blunt instrument that comes to hand. It’s incidentally, like Kill List, a British road movie which makes use of sinister, yet curiously appealing out-of-the-way locations and, of course, fully expresses the horrors of the British climate.