In 1973 Robin Hardy directed what is now considered an established classic of the horror genre, The Wicker Man. Not only does this stature attributed to the film befit it, but it is also one of the great films to emerge from the island of Great Britain and is constantly heralded as such. Its clash of the contemporary Christian belief systems with the old world of Paganism arise from a rich traditionalism that permeates British heritage and history. British director Ben Wheatley’s newest film Sightseers seems to channel the annals of this historical discourse, but in a slightly less overt and perhaps more interesting manner that the previously mentioned film. Not to suggest that Sightseers reaches the power and insight of The Wicker Man, but to ignore that the films are intrinsically linked would be to oversee the cultural concerns at the core of both films.Sightseers suggests that the ritualistic and elemental essence of Pagan and Celtic mythology is a runs through a modern experience, and manifests in the most unlikely of scenarios. Notably channelling both the tone and interests of The Wicker Man, in the case ofSightseers the comparative elements come about through two characters who take a harmless tour of the English countryside and become involved in a violent murder or two.
Tina (Alice Lowe) lives with her bitter and lonely mother Carol (Eileen Davies) in a small townhouse, which used to also facilitate a small dog named Poppy (that Tina accidently killed on a knitting needle). Carol won’t forgive Tina for the murder and when Tina goes on a road trip with her new partner Chris (Steve Oram), Carol uses the guilt in an attempt to manipulate her into staying. They take their trip anyway, in which Chris has planned visits to numerous museums, historical sights and scenic routes in an attempt to give Tina an insight into his world. Upon visiting a tram museum, Chris notices a man throw his ice cream wrapper on the floor, and after attempting to notify the man of his carelessness becomes enraged by the man’s lack of consideration and arrogance. So he kills him by running him over. Thus begins a road trip (or “sexual odyssey” as noted by Chris) that continuously becomes more and more violent and surreal as we become witness to Chris’ penchant for murder and Tina’s susceptibility to Chris’ influence.
Tina and Chris are lonely. The drudgery of their mediocre and dreary existence permeates the screen through the locations they visit and the caravan they travel in. Pulling in to one sad caravan park after another, they attempt to flair up their lifeless pasta meals with sexual and murderous acts. They justify each through a warped morality propagated by isolation and their desire to escape it. Their pent up frustrations express themselves through an escalating sex/death spree, which is equal parts humorous and disturbed. Unlike God Bless America a similar film this year that depicts a vendetta inspired killing spree hell bent on dispelling stupidity, Sightseers actually accentuates the darkness and destructive nature of their crimes rather than eliciting laughter through hate induced annihilation of undesirables. Its victims are framed within the inherent lack of its protagonists, which brings a seriously grim gravity to the proceedings. This lack obviously derives from the particular situations of its characters headspace and environment; however the events take place in the British Isles, which when combined together suggest that these characters deficiencies occupy a strange mystical temperament. Not to mention the characters encounters with Shamans, ancient ruins and a wonderful set of montages that depict certain events with a vicious spiritual aura all sound tracked to Donovan’s "Season of the Witch". It’s a method of comprehending the violence that extends beyond its mere presence and execution that gives the film a resonance. If only these elements cut deeper than they do, the film could have risen above its humble stature.
Wheatley has a confidence presence, and his film crackles with a visual assuredness. Like his contemporary Edgar Wright (who has an executive producer’s credit), Wheatley’s image construction wholly utilises sleek, modern framing and editing techniques to achieve a sort of hyper realism. It’s an effective technique that is utilised to balance the comedic and dramatic moments, and unlike Wright, Wheatley understands the limits to its application. Both Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (who both co-wrote and developed the stage play the film is based upon) have obviously developed the characters to great detail, as both come across as equal parts amicable and damaged. Their depictions are always establishing and reversing audience sympathies resulting in fully realised and human characters; a must for their particular idiosyncrasies. WhilstSightseers may be a product of its own influences, it has enough drive and energy to simultaneously re-create itself as a singular entity. Sightseers plays a wonderful balancing act between drama and comedy giving way to an insight into the tumultuous history of the human mind.