[EDITOR'S NOTE: Shortly before we went to press, the theatrical release of Sightseers was delayed to Fri June 7. However! It's currently available on demand, so just watch it that way. Let us never speak of this again.]
BEN WHEATLEY wants you to squirm. His 2011 hit-man shocker Kill List was disturbing, to say the least. Some people despised it; some people (myself included) thought its skin-crawling content contained more raw filmic genius than any movie in recent memory. If Kill List, a grueling family horror story with symbolism and subtext layered in almost unfathomably thick levels, was Wheatley's The Shining—and more on that Stanley Kubrick comparison in a minute—then Sightseers is perhaps his Dr. Strangelove. Co-produced by Edgar Wright, it's a black, black comedy that's horrific and hilarious.
Tina (co-writer Alice Lowe) has a new beau, and her mother doesn't like it one bit. She's still holding Tina responsible for accidentally impaling the family dog Poppy with a knitting needle. Despite mom's objections, ginger-bearded Chris (Co-writer Steve Oram) whisks Tina away on "holiday" (that's what British people call "vacation") in his "caravan" (that's what British people call a "trailer"). And off they trundle, with the caravan teetering behind them, to see the not-so-exciting sights of Northern England.
The relationship between Tina and Chris is complicated and rich, and Lowe and Oram, who co-wrote the script, are outstanding. The frumpy, sheltered Tina is flattered by Chris' attention, and despite his balding head and her awful jeans, there's palpable—and really funny—sexual chemistry between the two. Chris claims he's working on a book, but in truth he hasn't written a single word. This doesn't seem to bother Tina, who takes on the mantle of his muse, a role she wears as proudly her homemade lingerie. When the two find the subject that inspires them both, Sightseers' wry, awkward humor turns uproariously brutal.
I don't want to give away too much, as Wheatley lets Sightseers' events unfold in a wonderfully appalling way, but the dominos are set into motion when Chris backs the caravan over a fellow who'd earlier given him the finger. Whether that grisly death is an accident or not is one of the film's playful ambiguities; it's possible even Chris himself doesn't know.
Things naturally spiral from there, and as we're slowly, reluctantly beginning to like Chris and Tina, we're also watching them commit horrible atrocities. That complicity is what bugs the shit out of so many people with Wheatley's movies; he's such a gifted storyteller that you get wrapped up in the terrible thought processes of his characters. When they do something awful—and there's no shortage of bad behavior in Sightseers—you're the one who's on the hook.
Hopefully audiences will find the humorous Sightseers less alienating than Kill List, because Wheatley is one of the most powerful and intelligent filmmakers currently working. This is why a comparison to Kubrick is apt: Every shot, cut, and line of dialogue in Sightseers is purposeful, sometimes twofold or even tenfold. The shock nature of his films means the true depth of his humor and humanity isn't always readily accessible on first viewing. But it's there. Is Wheatley's outlook on mankind's inherent, animalistic barbarism a bleak one? Undoubtedly. But there's so much more to what he's doing.