'Sightseers' Review: Brutal Killings Are the Second Hardest Thing to Watch in Ben Wheatley's Movie

May 06, 2013 | 8:29am EDT

Credit: IFC Films

Sightseers has your eyes from start to finish. From the opening shots of a moaning old woman, clutching fast to the soul of her adult-child daughter Tina (Alice Lowe), through the visual spectacles that follow Tina and her boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram) on their cross-country caravan tour, you're engaged. And quite often in the unsettling feature, this works against you. Ben Wheatley's film, conceived and written by his two starring players, doesn't want you slump comfortably into a comical story about a road trip around Great Britain. What it wants, instead, is to jar you inside and out.

After its soft-spoken introduction, the film shifts abuptly to a platform of physical and emotional violence: validating everything that Tina's sadistically overbearing mother (Eileen Davies) warned her about, Chris transforms from a good-natured romantic to a sociopathic murderer. Not a metaphor, the dude starts killing people left and right, with provocations as slight as littering, heated arguments, and judgmental eye-rolls. The murders prove a cinematic outlier — embedded in far greater realism than the likes of Tarantino, sensationalized well beyond the average death you'd see in an action-adventure. You're pulled in full force to every one of Chris' prideful, wrathful murders, begging for the scene to change back to a tepid conversation between the fellow joureyers.

But then, even these scenes become scathing. Although we're chauffered through some of Chris' darker turns at close proximity to the mad explorer, our real journey is with Tina, whose horror and amazement with her beau's deeds are all so morbidly steeped in her desperate need to feel good about herself. Tina's arc has her fleeing the grasp of her mother for the first time to pioneer a bout of self-efficacy, unprepared for the hurdles that amount when Chris rears his bizarre hobby, or undertakes an adulterous transgression with an intoxicated bachelorette partier.

Every ounce of Tina, from the first seconds of the film throughout, is drenched in a lonely, anxious pain. Her proverbial road trip offers up countless speed bumps on the path to a gratification she seems to have dreamt up or seen on television, never having received any sort of kindness from her mom, whose only affections appear to have been reserved for the pet terrier that Tina inadvertently killed one year prior. And as we watch her struggle and shrivel at the whim of her own tormented, self-unaware psyche, it's almost too much to handle.

But luckily, Wheatley makes Sightseers manageable. Operating alongside all the darkness and pain, the galaxy of loathing that is this story, is an odd air of color. Shot like a marvelous picture book, the movie doesn't marry its subject matter with gritty aesthetic, but with a bright, beautiful visual spectrum. Even the smaller, personal scenes look pristine — the arguments inside the camper are terrifically staged, the mobile cocoon of Chris' eccentric pal a delight for the eye.

And of course, the comedy. In spite of yourself, in spite of the goings on onscreen, you'll laugh at Sightseers. You'll laugh at Chris' outbursts, knowing full well that they are building toward certain horror. You'll laugh at Tina's misgivings, completely aware that they stem from a lifelong solitude and self-loathing. Somehow, the movie manages darkness and brimming light at the same time. When you're laughing, you're not forgetting about the turmoil, you're just accepting it.

Again, the only shortcoming of the film might be that it is at times too powerful. With such a visceral experience carrying throughout, it lands in a conclusion that seems to spring from, and lead to, nowehere. We're hard-pressed to figure out what we're meant to have learned, understood, or even experienced in Sightseers. For some, this will translate as a flaw — if you like to walk away from a movie with new thoughts and ideas, you'll find frustration in Sightseers. But if you're content just feeling, vividly, for an hour, and leaving the theater a little bit shaken as a result, then you'll have a fun, albeit tremendously upsetting, time with Sightseers.

Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter

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