Review: Ben Wheatley’s ‘Sightseers’ gives a dark spin to romantic comedy

Ben Wheatley has quietly turned into one of the most interesting voices in English film right now, a guy who seems fairly adept at bending his personal storytelling style to the material he’s shooting instead of imposing one voice on everything he does.  He is sly, with a jet black sense of humor, and he seems to take great pleasure from pushing his audiences to deeply uncomfortable places.

His breakthrough film was “Down Terrace,” and I remember how excited Tim League was about that film.  It’s a very small-scale, well-observed film about a family scratching out a low-level criminal existence, and I liked it a lot.  His next film, the genre-bending “Kill List,” absolutely flattened me when I saw it at SXSW, and I felt like it marked a real step forward by him.  With his third film, “Sightseers,” he’s made what could be his first cross-over hit, a film that still plays dark and that surrenders none of his personal voice, but that is universal in a way that “Kill List” was never going to be.  It is little wonder it found a place in the Fantastic Fest 2012 line-up as Tuesday night’s first secret screening.

Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) have fallen in love, and they’ve decided to take a trip together.  Chris has a caravan that he’s decked out for the trip, and Tina’s as excited as she could possibly be.  She’s been living with her demanding, angry mother her whole life and she’s reached a point where she can’t imagine doing it any longer.  Chris isn’t just a possible romance, he’s an escape from a life that has become insufferable to her.  She’s got the trip idealized in her head before she even leaves the house, and if Wheatley just wanted to tell a story about how real life rarely meets our expectations, that could be potent material.  He’s got something much more sinister in mind, though, and we get hints of it from the early part of the film when we see hints of Chris’s temper, particularly in response to what he sees as the coarse and the rude.

Oram and Lowe created these characters and played them before, and we detailed some of that in my interview with Wheatley at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.  Edgar Wright was also involved here, and it’s a case of people all emerging out of the same general talent pool and helping each other out.  Wright’s regular producer, Nira Park, is one of this film’s producers, and I’m thrilled to see that kind of cross-mingling of very talented artists helping each other get films made, believing in something more than just their own narrow career arc.  Wheatley’s building a repeat company of collaborators, both in front of the camera and behind it.  He and his cinematographer Laurie Rose are already talking out their next film, which just started shooting in a field in England somewhere.  I think it would be hard to claim that anyone has gotten more mileage out of the “field in England” setting in recent memory than Wheatley has, and the encounters he stages in those remote quiet places are no less emotionally harrowing than the ones in “Kill List,” but with the added edge of laughter.

True dark comedy is a rare thing.  Tasteless comedy is not the same thing as dark comedy, although it’s easy to confuse the two.  Dark comedy is more about the acknowledgement that we are fairly awful animals in the way we behave when we think no one knows.  “Sightseers” is about that moment in a relationship where you finally have to confront the person you’re with, the real person, when the mask slips and you realize who it is that you’ve trusted yourself to, when the monster on the pillow next to you stands revealed.  Most people have things that they believe make them less desirable or even unloveable, things they try to keep from people, things they try to even deny to themselves.  In “Sightseers,” Chris is the first one to drop his guard, and when Tina gets a good long close-up look at who and what Chris is, she decides she wants in.  That’s what I think is really interesting about the picture, the idea that she knows exactly what Chris is and she still says yes.  She’s willing to just incorporate that into the language of their relationship.  His darkness doesn’t scare her at all.  It’s only once he starts to see his darkness reflected in Tina’s own reckless embrace of his behaviors that someone gets scared, and it’s Chris who blinks first.

Add one of the most adorably deadpan running subplots about beloved pets and tragic accidents, with a dog named Banjo (or Poppy depending on who you believe) at the heart of it stealing all his scenes, and “Sightseers” plays like a mentally ill romantic comedy, a romantic game of chicken where both sides are sociopaths, and I think it’s incredibly skilled.  The script, credited to Lowe and Oram and Amy Jump, is very focused in the way it uses this trip and its detours to the Keswick Pencil Museum and the Crich Tramway Museum to show the evolution of this damaged love.  Lowe and Oram do invisibly great work in the movie, and the entire cast, most consisting of one or two scene roles as they encounter people on the road, is filled with people who make the most of their short time on screen.  And while “Sightseers” is definitely a dark comedy, it’s not a joke, and Wheatley makes it count all the way to the last few heartbreaking moments.  I think “Sightseers” is very special, one of the highlights of this festival year (it’s been at Cannes, Toronto, and now here at Fantastic Fest), and further proof that Ben Wheatley is one of the most interesting new voices of the last few years.

“Sightseers” will arrive in theaters in the US sometime in 2013.