Film Review: Sightseers

A pair of misfit lovers—prickly loner Chris and painfully introverted Tina—embark on a quirky road trip that includes stops at such roadside attractions as a museum of pencil-making, gradually revealing a dark side to their apparently harml

Originally conceived as a TV pilot but deemed too dark and reworked into a feature, Sightseers opens by laying bare in a series of spare, relentless scenes the life of plain, socially awkward Tina (Alice Lowe), who’s spent most of it under the thumb of her mother, Carol (Eileen Davis), a harridan who never misses an opportunity to cruelly denigrate her daughter and has never forgiven her for the accidental death of her beloved dog Poppy.

So, unprepossessing though new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram), may be—both physically and personality-wise—it’s easy to see why Tina regards him as her ticket to a normal existence, one in which lovers have jobs (at least, Chris has one), go on week-long caravan holidays together, share drinks and meals with fellow travelers and have each other's backs, no matter what.

But it doesn't take long for Tina to begin to see Chris' flaws, notably his tendency to fly into fits of rage at what most people would consider minor offenses against the social contract, like dropping a sticky ice-cream wrapper on the floor of a vintage tram. Sure, the fat loudmouth who responds to Chris' request that he pick up his litter with a volley of loutish, bullying threats and bluster is a jackass. But even if the police treat the instinct as an unfortunate accident, how odd is it that Chris "accidentally" ran over him, fatally, in the parking lot?

Or that a little later, the smug, vaguely New-Age-y author who's writing a book about ley-line walking tours in the U.K. countryside and owns a little dog that's the very image of Poppy disappears while out on a stroll? Tina's not stupid, but she wants neo-Poppy and to continue their thrilling vacation more than she wants to admit to herself that Chris has sociopath written all over him.

Sightseers fits neatly into the sub-genre of murderous folie a deux films, a sub-genre diverse enough to encompass Natural Born Killers, Bonnie and Clyde, They Live by Night, The Honeymoon Killers, Badlands, Buñuel-protégé Arturo Ripstein's Deep Crimson and, well, François Ozon's Criminal Lovers. But it's also clearly of a piece with Wheatley's previous movies, the down-market crime picture Down Terrace and Kill List, a Brit gangster movie that takes a sudden, disorienting turn into something far weirder than the dual life of a suburban family man who knocks off people (bad people, to be sure…or at least people he can rationalize are worse than he is) for a living.

The thing about Wheatley is that he's capable of simultaneously embracing both the awkward comedy and creeping horror of Chris and Tina's voyage into darkness, depicting them as inextricably intertwined, rather than as discrete facets of their personalities that don't quite mesh with each other. It's funny that they begin their vacation to the strains of Soft Cell's 1982 cover of "Tainted Love," but it's faintly ominous as well. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes Sightseers so entertaining: You see where it's going early—not the details, to be sure, but the broad strokes—and that makes the trip more, rather than less, creepily hypnotic.