10 December 2012

SIGHTSEERS- Review

Even though this one came out after Seven Psychopaths at the local multiplex, it remains that we've gotten two pitch black comedies, about writers in search of inspiration, which both feature cute little dogs in pivotal roles, within the space of a week. Sightseers has garnered the most praise thus far, with director Ben Wheatley, hot off of last year's Kill List (which I personally found overrated) collaborating with executive producer Edgar Wright to create something more agreeably fucked-up than his other recent film.

Tina lives with her manipulative mother, but at the beginning of the film, she's thoroughly smitten with Chris, a manful, ginger-faced journeyman, who's going to show her the world from his caravan. Through the course of their holiday, the Brummie couple are drawn to such wonders as the Crich Tramway Museum and the Keswick Pencil Museum, but things soon take an unexpected and homicidal turn. With Tina as his muse, Chris blazes a violent trail across the countryside in the name of bringing obnoxious knobheads down a notch, while unintentionally bringing out a new side of his girlfriend.

Just before its UK release, it was announced that this film would be amongst those shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, and my immediate thought about this, upon seeing the film, was to wonder how well it would travel. While Kill List found acclaim overseas, this is far more idiosyncratic in its Britishness. It's like an Aardman film, if only in that respect- then again, I suppose that the heads of Chris and Tina's victims seem to be just as pliable and mushy as the plasticine noggins of Wallace and Gromit, with the proper application of rocks and sticks. Perhaps international audiences will find the gruesome and macabre violent comedy aspects to be more enjoyable.

Of course, Wheatley also wrote his previous two features, and although Down Terrace was similarly British by way of being much more low-key, the tonal difference with this script is more likely down to its being contributed by stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, who originated the lead characters as a live comedy act. After two films in which tension is lovingly cultivated, and the atmosphere mounts glacially before a big finish, Sightseers is packed with shocking moments that leave you with only two options- gasp and cover your hand with your mouth, or start laughing.

It's not merely the visceral impact of the violence, which certainly does contribute to the film's ability to keep you on your toes, but the way that the film can lead you to either fearfully or gleefully anticipate one turn, and then spin 90 degrees in the other direction, at the very last minute. While it's the fastest and funniest film that Wheatley has made, it also preserves his own established style of filmmaking, with abrupt cuts to black between scenes, and shots that last just a little too long for comfort. The film itself is a sprightly 88 minutes, so you should also know that there's no over-indulgence in this gruesome romantic comedy.

From the dialogue to the sight gags, Lowe and Oram did a great job on the script, which also carries additional material from Wheatley's editor and wife, Amy Jump. Lowe's Tina has an excellent character arc that firmly establishes her as the protagonist first and a target for sympathy second, even if the film's own plot doesn't necessarily manifest them in that order. Oram gives good sociopath as Chris, first saying that all he asks for in life is to be feared and respected, and then railing at his girlfriend for being a bad influence on him. Even as they do appalling things, and Wheatley homes in on the confusion and grief that they leave behind in their wake, you find yourself rooting for these crazy bastards.

I liked Down Terrace well enough, and I wasn't won over by Kill List, but Sightseers is, for me, the film that marks Ben Wheatley's arrival as a filmmaker. Perhaps its his lack of input in the script, but I could appreciate his directorial talents and flair a lot more with this one, and Steve Oram and Alice Lowe's darkly hilarious tale is clearly complemented by his style. It made me laugh and gasp in equal measure, and given Wheatley's penchant for sucker-punch endings, perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that this one left me both shocked and amused as the credits rolled. But this one is, to me, Wheatley's best film to date.

Sightseers is still showing in selected cinemas nationwide.
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I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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