TIFF ’12 Review: “Sightseers” Takes Ben Wheatley to New Heights

A mix of the dark comedy of his debut "Down Terrace" and the horror of his followup "Kill List," Ben Wheatley's third feature is small in conception, a big...
Steve Oram and Alice Lowe in Ben Wheatley's film "Sightseers"

Even more sublime than the hilarious heights reached by the new comedy “Sightseers” is the chance to see its director Ben Wheatley continue to evolve as a filmmaker. This, like the ending of his last film, the horrific mindfuck “Kill List,” may come as a surprise since his latest film takes on the least ambitious of all narratives in relating a road trip taken by a couple at a make or break point in their relationship. Yet anyone familiar with Wheatley’s first film “Down Terrace” will know that he can milk a simple premise for all its worth and in “Sightseers,” it’s the growing complexity of his visual vocabulary and the clever gags inside of it that make it as majestic as the rolling hills its characters navigate in the British Midlands.

Of course, a great deal of “Sightseers”‘ depth emerges naturally from the collaboration of writer/actors Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, who spent the last five years developing the characters of Chris and Tina, respectively, a pair of thirty somethings seemingly ill-suited for anyone else’s company but each other’s. While Tina is a shut-in who remains chipper though she longs for a life away from her bitter mother, Chris prefers to be by himself, sickened by the lack of civility he sees around him from people who litter in public places to those who feel unreasonably entitled in the trailer parks where he hitches his caravan at night. In order to show Tina a good time, he dutifully cleans things up before she arrives at any given place, yet this being a Wheatley production, that usually entails the disposal of dead bodies.

Although “Sightseers” can get gruesome as Tina learns of Chris’ consideration of her and begins to get in the act herself, the film itself rolls along without incident, gliding on the unexpectedly endearing repartee between the couple and the idiosyncratic love that develops between them (naturally punctuated by the cheeky needle drop of Soft Cell on the soundtrack). Oram and Lowe disappear into their roles, easily passing for a couple you’d see sitting across from you at a restaurant, in such convincing fashion that it hides the fact that they’re a perfectly mismatched and complementary comic team, as most dysfunctional lovers are. Calculating and coldblooded, Chris knows beyond the frequent cabin-rocking sessions that define his relationship with Tina, he is lacking her warmth and wonder, with Oram’s often expressionless calm a perfect foil for Lowe’s nervous energy.

Likewise, the contrast between the grizzly violence the couple is capable of and the mundane context Wheatley often places it in for a laugh is just as harmonious, with black comedies such as these rarely made by filmmakers with this director’s eye. Surely making the most of a limited budget, Wheatley and longtime cinematographer Laurie Rose don’t skimp on beautifully composed shots of the countryside while retaining the naturalism that has grounded their previous collaborations, even as things begin to spiral out of control for Chris and Tina. In fact, Wheatley’s control has never seemed greater, the music cues (much of which comes from a wonderfully nimble score by Jim Williams), the deft editing by Wheatley, Amy Jump and Robin Hill and the performances all so sharp that the film is allowed to be viewed properly as the gem that it is.

“Sightseers” will be released in the U.S. by IFC Films and will debut in the UK on November 30th.

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