Ben Wheatley is working hard on his career. He got himself noticed with Kill List, he provided one of the better entries for The ABC's Of Death anthology and now fully confirms his status of emerging talent with Sightseers. He is exactly what UK cinema needs right now, a man who can uproot some of the rusty parts while keeping faithful to the things that makes UK films worthwhile. Sightseers is a delightful dark comedy, but beware of its sharp edges.
UK cinema has been doing pretty well lately, but it still shows some disconcerting weaknesses. The biggest problem as I see it is that while UK genre films are definitely delivering, there isn't much happening in between the genres. Directors conform a little too much to the rules of the genres they're working in, with very little cross-genre mixing and blending going on. The result is a bunch of solid films, but nothing too memorable to really boost the image of their film industry.
A director like Wheatley can change that, point in case this weird little mix of British comedy, drama and horror. An unlikely combination of genres, especially when considering their British variants, but one that ultimately works very well and feels like a welcome breath of fresh air. Not that Wheatley can turn around the fate of an entire industry all by himself, but at least he's setting a good example for the others. Sightseers might not be the most accessible dark comedy out there, but film fans around the world are talking notice once again.
The film starts off as a regular British social drama. The combination of ugly realism, poverty and a bunch of social outcasts is unmistakable. It doesn't take too long before the first weird and morbid humorous bits start to pop up though. A bit hesitant at first, but halfway through nobody should be doubting the intentions of Sightseers. By that time we've also witnessed a few ruthless murders, taking care of the horror portion of this film.
I'm pretty much in two minds about the visual choices Wheatley made. I get that in order to resemble a (British) social drama this film needs some colorless and grey settings and characters accompanied by rather unattractive camera work, but I'm just not a big fan. Later on Wheatley does put in some more effort, making good use of the setting and using some cool lighting and editing tricks to give some polish to the visuals. The overall result isn't too mind-blowing, but I must admit that Wheatley's choices do support the goals of Sightseers all the way through.
The somewhat eclectic soundtrack further underlines the film's schizophrenic nature. Wheatley switches constantly between famous 80s pop songs and more traditional soft and less intrusive piano music. While the soundtrack isn't the most memorable bit of Sightseers, it functions quite well and it does have a positive effect on the overall atmosphere on the film.
At the heart of the film's success are Lowe (Tina) and Oram (Chris), who do a sublime job bringing the two main characters to life. They are so convincing in portraying these small-town subjects of pure misery that I'm sure it will be hard to see them in a different role for some time to come. Even though the actions of Chris and Tina become quite grotesque in the second half of the film, Lowe and Oram bring a certain level of believability to the table that is essential to the entire setup of the film. The secondary cast is pretty great too, though they are simply outclassed by Lowe and Oram.
While Sightseers has many different entries that may speak to a large collective, I'm not sure that the combination of drama, humor and comedy will leave many of them content after the film is done. Horror and comedy fans may be turned off by the film's drab setting, drama fans may not be too pleased by some of the more gruesome bits and the dry, unapologetic humor. In the end I think this film will appeal to a small but avid fan base who have the power to turn Sightseers into a nice little cult favorite.
Wheatley is a blessing for UK cinema. Even though his films may not reach a big audience (yet), he is paving the way from cross-genre blenders that will eventually find their way into the mainstream, giving British cinema some extra cachet. Fans of the unusual will have a great time with Sightseers though. The film is madly funny, Lowe and Oram are both excellent and there are some truly memorable bits packed in here. If you think you can handle the combination of drama, comedy and horror make sure to check it out.