Don’t Be an Asshole, by Matt Warren
Remind me to always be on my best behavior inside a Ben Wheatley movie. The British director’s two previous films—2011’s Kill List and the new Sightseers—both feature unhinged protagonists taking it upon themselves to extract brutal moral vengeance on society’s most obnoxious 1%. Dopes, oafs, and douchebags do not fare well within the Wheatleyverse—from too-loud guitar players, to drunken bachelorette party attendees, to duplicitous clergymen. Such mouth-breathers are dealt with swiftly and decisively, frequently at the business end of rusty clawhammers or runaway Winnebagos. Such mayhem is cathartic to witness, but unsettling to consider with any degree of seriousness. The tension between these two feelings is what makes Sightseers an effective, unnerving dark comedy.
Sightseers follows new couple Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe)—a pair of ridiculous, mentally unstable sadsacks from suburban England desperate to escape the loneliness of their drab, unimpressive lives. They’re in love, or at least think they are, and are eager to put their new relationship to the test during a cross-country roadtrip in Chris’s camper van. Tina is hungry to escape the talons of her cruel, overbearing mother, and is too quick to idealize Chris as her Prince Charming. Chris just wants someone to feed his ego, to make him feel like the great, important man he clearly isn’t. Each feeds the other’s neurosis, and the combination is toxic.
The trip begins to go south when Chris “accidentally” runs over and kills a boorish litterbug. Paperwork sorted at the local police station, the couple presses on with their romantic sojourn. But soon, more bodies begin piling up—from rude yuppie campsite neighbors to priggish hiking trail scolds. Chris will stop at nothing to make sure they have the perfect holiday, even if it requires killing a few irritants along the way. Tina doesn’t necessarily approve, but she’s willing to have a conversation about it. And just like that, the lovers find themselves in the middle of a semi-accidental killing spree across scenic rural England, like Bonnie & Clyde in sweatpants.
Like all successful satires, Sightseers is the examination and comedic extrapolation of a recognizable human impulse. The impulse Sightseers focuses on is the anxiety of the Ruined Vacation. Ruined Vacation Anxiousness, or RVA, is no stranger to film. It took center stage most notably in the Chevy Chase classic Vacation and its many sequels. But within RVA are several distinct brands of sub-anxiety. The RVA anxiety most frequently explored (and the one most commonly visited upon the purgatorial Griswolds) is the Anxiety of Family—i.e. vacations ruined by parents, siblings, or spouses. But what Sightseers explores is much more unique and untapped within the RVA rubric: the Anxiety of Strangers.
This is a film for anyone who’s ever had their holiday spoiled, in whole or in part, by the annoying boobs one campsite over, in the hotel room above, or in the next airplane seat. We all know these fuckers. Loud. Smelly. Dressed poorly. Reading something dumb or watching some piece of garbage you can’t help but glance over at (the fucking Celestine Prophecy…seriously?) We all want to murder these people. To rid ourselves of their presence and punish them for making our designated relaxation space anything less than 100% ideal. Of course, you and I don’t live out our violent fantasies of retribution. Probably. But Chris does. He’s a vacation vigilante. The Frank Castle of Getting Away from It All.
Kill List was one of the most innovative and terrifying horror films of the last decade, and Sightseers fails to match it. It’s less ambitious, and the filmmaking feels more ragged. Assuming its still-young director goes on to a long career, this film will probably be considered “minor Wheatley.” Sightseers is every bit as grim as the bleak Kill List, but it’s a bit shrill in its glibness. This is clearly part of Wheatley’s overall vision, but anyone looking for a deeper emotional core here will go lacking. Chris and Tina are fascinating and pitiable monsters, but they’re not three-dimensional. Credit to Oram and Lowe for making these cretins watchable and weirdly lovable.
This is a unique movie, and one worth seeing if you’re the kind of person who likes sour candy. Don’t go to the beach house or your friend’s mom’s cabin up in Big Bear. Stay at home and enjoy being alone.