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Review: Sightseers (2013)

Sightseers (2013)

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Premise: An offbeat couple (Alice Lowe and Steve Oram) take a road trip through the English countryside but what begins as a relaxing trip takes a murderous turn as the couple kills anyone who annoys them.

What Works: Most movies are made with a particular audience in mind and as such they imitate existing films to appeal to that audience with the goal of replicating the box office performance. The result is usually a picture that tends to look and feel like other movies. This is often a comfort for audiences because they know, usually within the first few minutes, what kind of movie they are getting into and set expectations accordingly. Then there are movies like Sightseers which establish a tone early on and then take the story into unexpected directions. That makes the film an awkward viewing experience that viewers may reject or accept, depending on how adventurous they are and how married they are to their expectations. The joy of Sightseers—and what is special about it—is the way in which its filmmakers refuse to adhere to any mainstream notions about tone, genre, or filmmaking style. This movie tells the story of a couple going on a road trip and from the opening the filmmakers establish a lighthearted if offbeat tenor; the couple do not look like the typical protagonists of a mainstream movie; they’re not thin or conventionally attractive, they don’t speak in wisecracks, nor do they come across as adventurous or violent. In fact, the couple is a pair of simpletons with sometimes slovenly manners but they don’t exhibit the traits that audiences are usually conditioned to associate with villains or other violent characters in the movies. When the carnage starts it’s all the more surprising and it takes on an absurd quality. Violence and comedy frequently go together but when they do the violence is usually bloodless as it is The Three Stooges or it is so over the top that it’s out of proportion with reality as in Evil Dead II. What is strange about the violence in Sightseers is that it’s absurd and yet realistic. The murders of this film simultaneously have a realistic look but are committed by characters who don’t act in the way we expect other human beings to behave or in the way we’ve been conditioned to expect movie characters to behave during and after taking a life. The film succeeds in making the audience laugh at really awful images but it also challenges the way in which we usually conceive of violence in cinema. 

What Doesn’t: Sightseers is the kind of movie that’s only going to appeal to a niche audience. The very design of the film is going to limit its appeal, so Sightseers can only be recommended to those who enjoy offbeat indie movies or very dark humor as seen in films like Seven Psychopaths or Snatch. But even allowing for that, the movie has its shortcomings. The film tests the audience’s patience, which is kind of the point of a movie like this, but its gleeful foray into bloodshed is a little bit troubling. Movies like Taxi Driver or even Death Wish have something at the heart of the picture that gives the violence a function beyond itself. With Sightseers it’s harder to decipher what the filmmakers might be trying to say about violence or life in general. This is a movie of gross people doing gross things to other gross people; the fact that the moviemakers get the viewer to laugh may be part of the point. In that respect, Sightseers is an end in itself. It exists because it can. But for a lot of viewers, especially those in the mainstream, that may not be enough to sustain interest or give a sense of satisfaction when it’s over.
DVD extras: Commentary tracks, featurette, outtakes, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Sightseers is admirable in the way its filmmakers accomplish what they’ve set out to do. The film subverts what we expect from cinema violence and from comedies. In that respect it is a deliberate train wreck of a movie. The film is certainly going to have a narrow appeal but that is the point.

Episode: #491 (May 18, 2014)