MIFF 2012: “Sightseers” will tow you right into the dark heart of love
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Written by Steve Oram, Alison Lowe & Ben Wheatley (with additional material from Amy Jump)
Either Ben Wheatley is a boiling pot of pent-up rage, or he is the complete opposite and thus finds perverse pleasure in humouring the rage fantasies and violent tendencies of the frustrated working-class white English male. Even last year’s grit-fest, Kill List, is not entirely void of something approximating humour, even at its bleakest, blackest moments. But with this his third narrative feature, humour takes centre stage and everything springs forth from and brings forth comedy: the gory violence, the psychotic romance, the meat-and-potatoes relationship drama, the deranged road trip through northern England with a caravan in tow.
Thirty-something Tina (Alison Lowe) lives with her possessive, borderline personality mother in a house filled with countless photographs and sketches of their beloved deceased terrier Poppy, whose death by knitting needle is portrayed in the film’s one and only flashback sequence. Tina meets Chris, a nice and mild mannered Louis C.K. lookalike (not really) who claims to be on a six month sabbatical from who knows what. They fall in love (or something like it) and despite her mother’s very verbal misgivings about caravans and strange men invading her “sanctum”, Tina takes off with Chris on a trip. As they depart to the synth-bass growls of “Tainted Love” on the soundtrack, the film tonally establishes itself as one not to be taken too seriously while simultaneously demanding full investment in whatever is to come, if you are to enjoy yourself that is.
Like a guy sharing his passion for 80s low-budget horror with a new flame, Chris takes Tina on a tour through the Yorkshire region, introducing her to things close to his heart, such as heritage trams, the art of mobile living and the Derwent pencil museum. But what she is soon to find out – to the shocked/delighted laughs and groans of a Friday night crowd – is that Chris has a bit more on his chest and on his mind that the interests of a man twice his age.
For what it’s worth, it must be said right off the bat that Sightseers has some absolutely breathtaking images, and not at all in the grand, epic sense. As low-budget and DIY as his films are or seem, Ben Wheatley is a gifted visual stylist, and the way he chooses to build a sense of place, mood and character by the odd shot or two of an ominous landscape, a lone antenna or grasses shivering in the breeze is as effective a touch as it is in an Andrea Arnold film, and nearly – though not quite – as poetic. From the very outset the cinematography is striking, direct credit to DP Laurie Rose whose use of darkness in particular is masterful, not only in Sightseers but also in Kill List.