Ben Wheatley makes films about unsavory Britons who murder people. This was the director’s M.O. on his first two outings, Down Terrace and Kill List, and it’s the setup to Sightseers as well. Here he retains the blood ties of his first film but ditches the ungodly disturbing angle of his second in favor of a darkly comic sensibility that was largely absent from both, centering this latest bloodbath around a couple on holiday whose travel itinerary includes offing anyone who inadvertently offends or otherwise inconveniences them. The violence is just as graphic, but it’s punctuated by gallows humor rather than insinuations of further brutality.
It’s difficult to overstate how wise it was for Wheatley to inject more humor into his repertoire: doing so allows him to keep doing his thing while also showing that he has more range than his organized crime-heavy first two features let on. We know by now not to trust the placidity with which Sightseers opens, but it’s nevertheless difficult not to let our guard down at the off-kilter jokes sprinkled throughout Chris and Tina’s exchanges. Even so, Wheatley remains a master at infusing the mundane with overtones of dread; Sightseers is at its most ominous when it appears to have the least going on.
“We don’t care about being fair, do we?” Tina asks after but one of their egregious acts, “We just care about being happy.” Happiness for these petty, bitter people includes taking things that don’t belong to them (including the dog of one early victim) and resolving one-sided quibbles with horrendous acts of violence. Shades of envy color most of their crimes, and a remark about self-empowerment is especially telling. But as the two unspool and become ever more erratic, so too does the film itself: what starts out as funny and even novel gradually devolves into repetition.