United Kingdom. 88 minutes. Directed by Ben Wheatley, 2012. Starring Alice Lowe, Steve Oram.
Tina and her boyfriend Chris are taking a road-trip holiday of England in Chris’s Abbey Oxford RV, visiting such sights as Blue John Cavern and the Cumberland Pencil Museum. But a horrific incident in the parking lot of the Crich Tramway Village–when Chris “accidentally” backs the RV over a rude, littering tourist–sets a much darker tone for the vacation. It soon transpires that this unassuming and not particularly bright couple are much more dangerous than they let on as they conduct a reign of terror across the English countryside.
The British black comedy Sightseers has an impressive pedigree behind it: writer/stars Alice Lowe (Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace) and Steve Oram (Tittybangbang), director Ben Wheatley (Kill List) and executive producer Edgar Wright (director of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and most recently The World’s End). With that much creative power in the production team, expectations are very high–and they do not disappoint.
Lowe and Oram have constructed a brilliantly, dryly funny script and–respectively as Tina and Chris–perform their roles perfectly, to the point where praising the acting and praising the writing are pretty much the same thing. The script is unapologetically eccentric and devoid of sentimentality, refusing to sympathize with any of its characters, who also include Tina’s distrustful mum; an enterprising, weed-smoking inventor on a bicycle; and a smug, condescending couple also traveling the caravan route. Think of The Doom Generation crossed with Thelma and Louise and Withnail and I as filtered through the sensibility of Karl Pilkington. The lack of an audience-identification character has the potential to alienate the audience, but the movie is so consistently funny that it keeps the audience’s attention, with a moment of greatness–Martin’s “alien coffin,” the theft of Banjo the dog, Chris’s memories of being “invisible” at school, “You didn’t let him see you do number twos, did you?”–coming every five minutes or so.
Tina is the showier, more flamboyant character, and as such Lowe tends to get the most memorable moments: showing off a knitted lingerie ensemble, wearing the most hideously dated pair of acid-washed jeans ever, screaming “This is not my vagina!” at Chris when she finds sexy photos on a camera she doesn’t realize he stole from one of his victims, or writing a “Dear John” letter with the “Big Scribbler,” a pencil that’s taller than she is:
But Oram’s subtler performance as Chris–who’s less obviously eccentric than Tina, but definitely madder–also impresses, with his “noble English oak” rant (“That tree won’t involve itself in low-level bullying that means you have to leave work”) one of the film’s highlights.
There are no bum notes in the supporting cast, each of them perfectly framing Lowe and Oram’s performances, from Eileen Davies as Carol, Richard Glover as Martin and Monica Dolan and Jonathan Aris as the insufferable Janice and Ian. Even the minor cast shines–Richard Marsden as a hiker who’s offended by Tina’s refusal to clean up after Banjo (or is it Poppy?) the dog is a particular standout.
Just as impressive is Wheatley’s understated and highly effective direction, with brilliant location work (Lowe and Oram presented the locations to Wheatley before shooting started, and places such as the Tramway Village and the Pencil Museum are apparently real). Top it off with a few inspired musical choices (including Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s forgotten classic “The Power of Love” and two versions apiece of “Tainted Love” and Donovan’s “Season of the Witch”) and the end result is one of the most entertaining slices of cinematic bleakness ever devised.
It’s a rare thing for a film to get all the tabs into all the right slots, but I just can’t think of anything bad to say about Sightseers. It’s an embarrassment of riches and a start-to-finish triumph for all involved. Highly recommended.