Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Oh...Tainted Love: "Sightseers" a warped, darkly amusing road trip


Sightseers (2013)
88 min., not rated (but equivalent to R).

Auspiciously directed by Ben Wheatley (he of 2009's "Down Terrace" and 2012's berserk, expectations-twisting "Kill List"), "Sightseers" is really the brainchild of its stars and co-writers, stand-up comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram. Offbeat, wickedly funny, and surprising to the very last shot, this British jet-black comedy is like a breath of fresh air that mines its humor from, of all things, murder. It could have been a one-joke movie, precariously veering between the morbid and the humorous, but neither element displaces the other.

Square, frumpy 34-year-old Tina (Lowe) doesn't feel like she has a fair deal in life. She lives with her mum, Carol (Eileen Davies), a harridan who's in constant need of care and holds the accidental death of their beloved terrier Poppy over her head. For three months, she has been dating a schlubby aspiring writer named Chris (Oram), whom Carol is quite suspicious of and thinks is moving too fast, especially when her daughter agrees to go on holidayor, in his words, an "erotic odyssey"—in a caravan (or, Winnebago) to Yorkshire. En route, Chris shows Tina a pleasant time, touring museums, until a fellow sightseer drops an ice cream wrapper and refuses to pick up after himself. This enrages Chris so much that, even when he backs up their caravan and runs the "pig" over, it takes Tina a while to catch on that her new man can get a little kill-happy. Litterbugs, smug writers, rude backpackers, flirty brides-to-be; they're all doomed. 

As we follow Tina and Chris' volatile relationship, Lowe and Oram, she being the yin to his yang, both have a goofy charm that breaks through the bloodlust. "Mint me," they say to one another when the driver requests a Mentos. Tina is empathetic from the start, having quit her pastime of crocheting from it causing the death of her pet dog. To lift her spirits on their trip, she finds a canine dead ringer in Banjo, a terrier belonging to one of Chris' victims. While Chris takes to fellow traveler Martin (Richard Glover), Tina has a lonely trip to Kenswick's Pencil Museum, where she ends up buying a huge pencil and writing Chris a note; it's as amusing as it is heartbreaking. Though his character is harder to read, Oram allows Chris to evolve, becoming Tina's personal judge. There's something sad and unsettling when Tina comes to a conclusion about her checkered-past boyfriend's ways: "I get it. It's about empowerment, isn't it? It's just expressing yourself and thinking outside the box. I've been in the box. I don't want to go back in the box. I'd rather die."

Simultaneously warped and droll, "Sightseers" is in full command of its tone, thanks to director Wheatley for knowing exactly how to shape the leads' script. There are so many demented comic touches. For instance, when a galling backpacker scolds Tina for not picking up the dog's feces, Chris beats the man with a stick, but before disposing of the body, Tina asks to see if there are any sandwiches in his bag (as one would). There is also a brilliantly edited murder sequence, intercut with a tribal ceremony, a cracked egg and a piece of a broken plate, all while scored to a cover of "Season of the Witch." With music being well-integrated into the film, the pitch-perfect use of Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" becomes a lingering theme as the story progresses.

Dead bodies mixed with lovemaking, panoramic views and tourist spots, the film has a touch of Edgar Wright's sense of humor (which makes sense because he's a producer) but still has the promising Wheatley's bloody prints all over it. Though no one deserves to dienot even the most obnoxious person with the best caravan—we can't completely disagree with this twistedly sweet couple as we did with Kathleen Turner's Beverly Sutphin in "Serial Mom." Whether you look at it as a comedy of deathly errors or a horror-comedy, "Sightseers" walks a tightrope and works from a genuinely deft and witty touch. It's a small, ruby-red gem.

Grade: B +

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