Ben Wheatley’s third film brings Bonnie and Clyde across the pond for a decidedly less glamorous take on homicidal lovers.
Every month, The Spool chooses to highlight a filmmaker whose works have made a distinct mark on the cinematic landscape.
With his love of mixing horror, dark comedy, and crime Ben Wheatley has been flirting with but never breaking through to the mainstream. However, this month that may all change.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movies being covered here wouldn’t exist.
After the success of Kill List, Ben Wheatley slightly shifted genres. His follow-up, Sightseers, incorporates elements of crime, horror, and comedy in unequal measure. For his third feature, he teamed up with Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, the co-writers and co-stars of the film. Following Lowe and Oram as Chris and Tina, a new couple taking their first road trip together, Sightseers works best as a surprise. Its absurdity is a great advantage, allowing Wheatley to craft a black comedy that shocks its audience into laughter.
Chris and Tina have only been together for a couple of months. They’re eating at local spots, having constant sex, and getting to know one another on a deeper plane while slowly traversing through the countryside in a caravan. Chris accidentally runs over a man, a serial litterer, at their first stop. The script only gets darker from this jumping-off point. But, Sightseers doesn’t linger on this death or any of the others that begin to stack up. It continues moving forward, just like Chris and Tina’s caravan.
Lowe and Oram have an easy chemistry, the kind that comes from people who have worked together for years. They know this script inside and out, and it shows. They play off one another’s banter, often opting for dry, droll humor over more traditional jokes. Oram remains almost shiftless in his antics, barely changing facial expressions as bodies continue falling. It’s business as usual for him. Meanwhile, Lowe is expressive and concerned, an audience avatar who easily fits into this story.
Wheatley lets them exist in this space, unaware of where or how this trip might end. He uses hard cuts to shock the viewer, but only in times of necessity. Mostly, he films Sightseers with a common modesty, a level of normalcy that’s off for a Wheatley film. One gets the sense that the film could have been much weirder, much more off-kilter. It seems almost reined in by the director and its stars, an unusual occurrence in the filmmaker’s oeuvre.
To everyone’s credit, the film doesn’t shy away from the psychological impacts of this lifestyle or Chris’s tendencies. His fresh girlfriend sees him as a mirror, one she looks into and somehow sees a part of herself. They aren’t the same, even if she wants them to be. There’s a sense that one can normalize anything in life. Desensitization is quick and easy, until it’s not.
The film is quirky, offbeat, and funny in its casualness with death.
Sightseers is an odd entry for Wheatley. It’s less thrilling than most of his films, focused on a couple alternating between turmoil and paradise. It plays on the audience’s expectations of movies they’ve seen in the past, of the road trip canon, of the British humor spilling out of Lowe and Oram. It’s undoubtedly horrific, but not horrifying, for these are not good or even decent people. The audience isn’t necessarily rooting for them to succeed or even stay together. The toxicity is off the charts. Wheatley delights in this subversion, this poisonous relationship, and the obvious comparisons to classics like Bonnie and Clyde or Thelma & Louise.
The film is quirky, offbeat, and funny in its casualness with death. It exists overtaken by a shadow of instability and consequence, one left by the actions of its leads, the results of those actions rarely seen. It’s another worthy entry in the Wheatley distinct catalog of oddities.