Sightseers (2013) Review

Tina (Alice Lowe) and Chris (Steve Oram).(Courtesy of Ben Wheatley)
Tina (Alice Lowe) and Chris (Steve Oram).
(Courtesy of Ben Wheatley)

Sightseers is a film with almost no story. The characters also have very little development or any kind of arc. The draw of the film is its ability to entertain through the absurdity of its concept, which is how two seemingly ordinary people can become serial killers and even learn to take pride in their work while still seemingly remaining ordinary. To that end, the film is a success, but its audience will be very narrow.

Tina (Alice Lowe) is 34 and still lives at home with her overbearing mother (Eileen Davies), who blames and resents Tina for killing the family dog. Tina has finally met a man she gets along with, Chris (Steve Oram), and the two of them plan to take Chris’ caravan and get away for a few days to take in the sights and indulge in a little intimacy. Unfortunately, other people keep spoiling their plans, and after one accident gives the couple a taste of blood, they quickly discover that murder is the quickest solution to any problem, even personal ones.

Those familiar with director Ben Wheatley’s work, like Down Terrace, will find similar details here. Wheatley has a knack for submerging audiences in the small details of the characters’ lives, even if they don’t necessarily develop the characters or push the story forward. The minutia, however, does offer bits of subtle humor, like Tina’s crotch-less lingerie that appears hand knitted. So while this information is disposable, it’s at least funny.

The characters are interesting in their mundaneness, but they are also all horrible people who grow difficult to like as the movie goes on. They behave monstrously to each other, but in a very nonchalant manner that straddles the line between comedy and repulsiveness. When Tina defends her killing of the family pet with, “It was an accident”, her mother replies, “So were you!” The characters also behave like adult children, indulging impulses without regard to anything else. Most times this is humorous; other times the characters are extremely off-putting, making it difficult to care about them.

Sightseers finds its stride late in the film when the couple has fully acclimated to the slaughter. They’ll kill people for simply being in the way of their vehicle while trying to park. Here, the absurdity is fully realized, and the two sightseers not only take pride in how they kill people, but also criticize each other’s methods.

The actors perform well, and there is a natural cohesion within the cast, even if it’s mostly couched in mean-spiritedness. The cast’s prowess, however, is exemplified by their ability to stay within the caricatures they’re playing, not in the exploration of actual character. But their incredible roles work well in the film, and it’s during the exchanges that feel completely adlibbed that the laughs will be strongest. It is a testament to the cast’s ironclad commitment that they don’t start laughing at their own material.

Sightseers won’t satisfy most audiences who are looking for story resolution and/or character growth. There’s nothing to suggest that Chris and Tina have murderous instincts, even after their first accidental kill. Surely, the fact that these ordinary people can be turned into serial killers is part of the film’s charm, but without more grounding in reality, Sightseers devolves into simplification, like parable or fairy tale. That observation notwithstanding, Sightseers still offers strong comedy of the darkest type. It’s so dark that many viewers may find it difficult to see what’s so funny, but for those who can, this film is a rare gem.