Sightseers is a 2012 horror-comedy film directed by Ben Wheatley (and co-produced by Edger Wright of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy). At the start of the film, we meet Tina (played by Alice Lowe), and her mother, who is grieving the death of her beloved dog, Poppy. We later come to find out that Tina’s carelessness led to Poppy being impaled on a knitting needle. Her mother doesn’t like Tina’s new boyfriend, Chris (played by Steve Oram), an ostensibly friendly caravan enthusiast and aspiring writer. Chris and Tina plan to tour the English countryside, having lots of sex and reveling in their newfound love. They have a series of rather boring stops planned, including the National Tramway Museum and a museum dedicated entirely to the history of pencils. Chris hopes the excursion will give him time to write his novel, with Tina functioning as his inspiration and muse. Despite the rather naive and childlike nature of their trip, we come to realize that nothing is as it seems. A freak “accident” at their first destination develops into a cross-country killing spree, and Chris and Tina’s true, sociopathic nature is slowly revealed.
Sightseers is one of those rare films that is incredibly dark and nihilistic, but nonetheless comedic, thanks in large part to the intensity of the killings juxtaposed with the rather bland and indifferent attitudes of the titular characters. The pair set out on their trip with seemingly pure intentions, but quickly develop a bloodlust and struggle to control their desire to kill. All of their victims have slighted them in some way, but the targets’ misdeeds are so small and insignificant that it makes the entire premise hilariously absurd. The first victim of their wrath simply drops a wrapper in the tram and refuses to pick it up, which in turn leads to Chris running him over with his caravan.
Ben Wheatley has a penchant for these kinds of dark films, centered on the act of killing, often from the perspective of the killer. In 2011, he directed Kill List, a flawed but nonetheless captivating and terrifying film about a pair of contract killers who must complete a series of bizarre and frightening hits. Sightseers is much lighter, with a darkly comical story, whereas Kill List has very little, if any humor at all. But in both films, Wheatley focuses on the lack of morality underpinning the character’s actions, and their relative isolation in the world. In Sightseers, Chris and Tina only care about their own passionate love affair; nothing and no one else matter. Once one murder has been committed, they have no problem committing more as needed, as long as it allows them to continue their road trip unimpeded.
Sightseers is certainly not a film for everyone. Some might watch the film, constantly searching for any sign of a moral compass, only to be disappointed. The complete lack of morality can be off-putting, even causing the characters to seem utterly unrelatable, but in a way, these qualities are what make a film like Sightseers so refreshing. We don’t need to know exactly why Chris and Tina are the way they are. We don’t need to understand why they have thrown themselves so completely into a new and strange relationship with one another, only to risk it all with a string of senseless murders. We have an unflinching view of their relationship, and we see first hand their isolation from the rest of the world. They are how they are, and the world and morality and justification exist entirely outside of the bubble they have created for themselves. To ask why is to completely miss the nihilistic vision that drives the film.
In addition to the wonderful performances by the film’s two leads, the photography in Sightseers is astounding. Brutal, violent murders are set against the rolling hills of the English countryside and the narrow streets of picturesque villages. The landscape works to further isolate the characters, making their plight both funny and strangely melancholic. We see these two as outcasts in a world that only notices them once they are already unapologetic criminals. Chris and Tina are just average people who have been pushed beyond the realm of acceptable behavior, and they intend to enjoy every minute of it.
Rating: ★★★★ out of 5
Sightseers is currently available to stream on Hulu.