British director Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers” is a pitch-black comedy about obnoxious people killing other obnoxious people in a world of kitsch. With only three films to his name — though he has several projects in the works — Wheatley has already built up a small cult following. His second film, “Kill List,” was genuinely uncanny and startling, drawing on a distinctly British strain of dark mysticism amidst a tale about hit men.
The sensibility of “Sightseers” is all over the map — Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” filtered through Mike Leigh and Chris Morris. Wheatley depicts a couple of serial killers on the road, indulging in a murder spree. His protagonists are pretty unlikeable, but almost everyone they meet is just as annoying. Wheatley draws on the broad characterizations of Leigh and the misanthropy of Morris, who created a genuinely hilarious half-hour TV show about pedophilia that, of course, created a firestorm of controversy.
“Sightseers” is aesthetically far superior to “Natural Born Killers.” Ethically, I’m not so sure. It seems largely devoid of subtext. A scene in which Chris (co-writer Steve Oram) rants about class before a murder is obviously thrown in for the benefit of people like me. “Sightseers” is very funny, but I can’t help feeling that if you’re going to play murder for laughs, you’d better have a point to make with it. Stone turned his killers into folk heroes and suggested that most of the people they murdered were worse than them. In its final half hour, “Sightseeers” makes some vague gestures about female empowerment, but ultimately feels too lightweight to really deal with its subject matter.
Chris picks up Tina (co-writer Alice Lowe) at her mother’s house for a journey across Northern England. The couple are in their mid-30s and have been dating for a few months. Tina’s mother distrusts Chris, but she sends them on their way. Chris wants to show Tina the Crich Tramway Museum, the Ribblehead Viaduct, and the Keswick Pencil Museum.
Along the way, the couple run into a few irritating people, like a man who gives Chris the middle finger after Chris complains about his littering. It soon becomes clear that Chris has a penchant for engineering “accidents” for such people. In fact, Chris is a full-blown serial killer. At first, Tina just observes, but eventually, she joins in his pastime.
Chris and Tina seem to hate the world around them, yet they are as engaged in it as anyone else. The house where Tina lives with her mother is filled with so much dog-related memorabilia the duo could appear on the TV show “My Crazy Obsession.” Chris and Tina plan their journey to tourist sights across England with no irony.
Wheatley, on the other hand, approaches their trip with plenty of sarcasm, but it’s difficult to tell if he intends to mock everything the couple encounters. The caves that Chris and Tina tour are genuinely attractive and look like they’d be worth a visit. Chris befriends a nice inventor, but other people they meet are epitomized by a gaggle of bachelorettes who see nothing wrong with flirting with Chris, even though he's with his girlfriend, and a group of “shamen” who play drums all night and then sacrifice chickens to the goddess Kali at dawn. Chris and Tina see these folks as expendable, and so does “Sightseers.” Chris eventually drops his pretensions of being a writer, which might have allowed him to redeem his experiences in some fashion.
Wheatley’s relatively staid style is preferable to the mania of “Natural Born Killers,” which looked like it was edited by a 12-year-old given a computer with post-production software, but visually, the film only really comes alive in a montage sequence that cuts between Tina making breakfast, Chris throwing a man off a cliff, and the shamen killing chicken. To Wheatley’s credit, this is all a good deal more watchable than it sounds on paper.
The filmmaker’s sense of humor is deadpan, but it might work better in the format of a half-hour sitcom. “Sightseers” seems to draw on the British TV tradition of Morris — Oram and Lowe actually originated their script onstage and then envisioned it as a TV pitch — but it takes out the ideology Morris’ work conveys. Maybe I’m wrong about that — the finale expresses some sort of message about feminism, misogyny, or some muddled combination of the two. What “Sightseers” doesn’t do is take the satirical leap Quentin Tarantino took in “Django Unchained” that would justify asking us to laugh at murder.
SIGHTSEERS | Directed by Ben Wheatley | IFC Films | Opens May 10 | Landmark Sunshine | 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves. | landmarkth
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