DAILY | Cannes 2012 | Ben Wheatley’s SIGHTSEERS
“Imagine a micro-budgeted BONNIE AND CLYDE with a dash of Mike Leigh.”
“After Down Terrace and Kill List,” begins James Rocchi at the Playlist, “midnight-movie manqués and buffs in the know were wondering what director Ben Wheatley would do next; the answer is, apparently, make you laugh until you sound like a hole in the side of an airplane. Sightseers, starring and written by Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, starts as Chris (Oram) and Tina (Lowe) embark on a camping tour of Britain, various caves and pencil museums and heritage sights—a nice, relaxing trip for a couple in their third month of going out. Things go off the rails early, though, at a streetcar museum where Chris is incensed by a litterbug… and, later, distractedly backs over the man and kills him. And it turns out that for Chris and Tina—both emotionally fragile and put-upon, killing people is like eating potato chips: After the first one, it’s hard to stop, and once your partner’s enjoyed it, well, you might as well too. Part of Sightseers plays like a funnier, scarier, British-er God Bless America, with the exception that for all of their foibles and quirks—and they each have plenty—Chris and Tina are always characters, not just pawns of a plot moving towards a predetermined endgame.”
The Guardian‘s Xan Brooks: “True to form, Wheatley’s latest is an unruly, confounding affair; a shotgun wedding of The League of Gentlemen and Nuts in May. No doubt some will view it as an acid satire on modern England, pootling its way from Matlock Bath to the Blue John caves to the eccentric wonder that is the Keswick pencil museum, and leaving a trail of corpses in its wake. All of which is fair enough, although the director is at pains to point out that there is an affection here, too. ‘Yeah, the film has got a lot of murder in it. And yeah, it touches on issues of the recession and class and where we sit in the social structure. But at the other end it’s also a film that shows the kind of England that we never get to see in films. I think some British filmmakers are so terrified of being seen as parochial that they ignore the land that’s under their very noses. But I’m very sympathetic to all that stuff. Yeah, caravaning is inherently silly, but there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the British countryside. So we’re not taking a snide view of it here. You have to love that stuff in order for the film to work.’”
“With the arrival of Sightseers, Wheatley’s aesthetic strengths finally start to fall into place,” argues indieWIRE‘s Eric Kohn. “This hugely entertaining tale of serial killers in love neatly merges the neurotic black comedy of Down Terrace with the morbid twists of Kill List, inching close to defining the director’s overall style…. Imagine a micro-budgeted Bonnie and Clyde with a dash of Mike Leigh…. Sightseers lists among its executive producers genre heavyweight Edgar Wright, whose Shawn of the Dead managed to introduce extreme comedy into a zombie story without creating a parody of itself. Sightseers operates with similar versatility by taking the rash of killings at face value while allowing it to co-exist with the more overtly hilarious aspects of their relationship.”
“Sightseers is funny and well made,” writes the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, “but Wheatley could be suffering from difficult third album syndrome: this is not as mysterious and interesting as Kill List; its effects are more obvious and the encounters between the naturalistically conceived antiheroes and the incidental, sketch-comedy posh characters is a little uneasy. By the end, I got the sense that in terms of character and narrative the film was running out of ideas—just a bit.”
Tom Huddleston, writing in Time Out London, also has his problems with Sightseers: “The bleak mood—familiar to anyone who’s suffered a low-rent English holiday-from-hell—is beautifully sustained, thanks to Wheatley’s unerring eye for a crumbling ruin or a spot of flaky paintwork. But the film never really settles into a comfortable style—it’s never quite funny enough to be comedy or quite nasty enough to be horror, and the goofy breadth of the characterization means that it’s too blunt for satire (though a few sideswipes at our current austerity hell are well placed)…. Sightseers is a film to file alongside the likes of Somers Town by Shane Meadows and Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story; a diverting, enjoyable but not entirely successful experiment, and a minor film from a major director. Someone, get this man a proper budget.”
That may happen sooner rather than later. Screen‘s Wendy Mitchell reports that Film4 is “in discussions with potential co-financiers” who may back Wheatley’s “cops-and-monsters film” Freakshift. Oliver Lyttelton has more on the project at the Playlist. Meantime, more on Sightseers from Mark Adams (Screen), Jeff Bayer (Movies.com), Alex Billington (FirstShowing, 7.5/10) and Derek Malcolm (Evening Standard).
Updates, 5/26: “The most consistently hilarious Brit-com for a good half-decade—probably since Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz—Sightseers cements director Ben Wheatley’s reputation among his generation’s smartest and edgiest filmmakers.” Neil Young in the Hollywood Reporter: “It’s rare and heartening to see such a talented filmmaker retaining his distinctive, uncompromising approach as he takes a step towards the mainstream.”
“Wheatley blends horror, black comedy, working-class realism, actor improvisations and social satire into an oddball meditation on l’amour fou, suburban English serial-killer style.” Time Out New York‘s David Fear: “It’s the funniest thing to have played on the Croisette, The Paperboy notwithstanding, and next to Pablo Larraín’s No, the highlight of the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar. IFC picked up the film for an American release; pray it has the smarts and savvy to open it on Valentine’s Day.”
“Even before trying his hand at feature work with Down Terrace, Wheatley was perfecting a macabre brand of can’t-look-away mayhem in viral shorts featuring ordinary people getting hit by cars and whacked with garden tools,” notes Variety‘s Peter Debruge. “Rendered in the same spirit, Sightseers‘ gore effects are not only sickeningly realistic, but clearly designed for a laugh, while two versions each of ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘Season of the Witch’ add a healthy dose of irony to the soundtrack. Once auds catch on to the pattern that the slightest perturbation is all it takes to set Chris off, the filmmaking team can really have some fun, playing our concern for the well-being of every awkward stranger they encounter as comedy.”
“Lowe and Oram’s script balances nimbly on the thread of razor wire between horror and farce,” writes the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin. “[T]he film is frequently laugh-out-loud funny but the couple’s crimes are never trivialized, and many of the death scenes are squirmingly vivid.” Wheatley “wisely plays things dead straight, and his director of photography Laurie Rose gives the Yorkshire and Cumbrian landscapes a dewily gorgeous sheen. Tina and Chris’s odyssey feels like a strange regression into Britain’s dark and feral roots, and it has the terrifying ring of truth.” Collin also reports that the “Palm Dog, the award for the best canine performance in any film screened during the Cannes Film Festival, was this year awarded to an up and coming British talent: Smurf,” a terrier who appears in the film.
Update, 5/29: Viewing (12’34″). Anne Thompson interviews Wheatley.
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