Hot on the heels of “Kill List,” British director Ben Wheatley applies his unique blend of run-and-gun naturalism and scabrous black humor to “Sightseers,” a wicked little pic in which a tacky couple discovers that cross-country road-tripping makes it surprisingly easy — and fun! — to knock off the more obnoxious characters they encounter en route. After their pilot proposal was deemed too dark for the telly, sketch comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram refashioned the idea into a feature whose built-in cult appeal should make a modest killing for IFC, which acquired the twisted Directors’ Fortnight title while touring Cannes.
With a wink to “The Honeymoon Killers,” the joyride begins at home, where knitting enthusiast Tina (Lowe) has long been dominated by her screechy mother (Mike Leigh regular Eileen Davis). Still mourning the death of her beloved pooch, Poppy, and eager for some independence, Tina ditches her mum and sets out on an excursion with her new beau, Chris (Oram), a harmless-seeming redhead with some serious anger-management issues.
On the pretense of seeking inspiration for a debut novel, Chris maps a path along some of England’s tackiest tourist attractions, but they’ve hardly made it through the first stop, the Crich Tramway Museum, when a litterbug (Tony Way) gets his blood boiling. After politely asking the “pig in clothes” to pick up after himself, Chris runs over the poor sod with his camping trailer, earning not so much as a slap on the wrist from the local police.
The second murder comes even more easily, with the added benefit that the victim’s now ownerless dog, Banjo, is a dead ringer for the late Poppy, becoming the unofficial mascot of their spree. At first, Tina is oblivious to Chris’ blooming homicidal streak, but the next poor bloke to cross their path — a condescending private-school sort (Richard Lumsden) who has the gall to ask Tina to pick up after her new pet — gets his head crushed for her benefit, and darn it, if that’s not the nicest thing anybody’s ever done for her.
Even before trying his hand at feature work with “Down Terrace,” Wheatley was perfecting a macabre brand of can’t-look-away mayhem in viral shorts featuring ordinary people getting hit by cars and whacked with garden tools. Rendered in the same spirit, “Sightseers'” gore effects are not only sickeningly realistic, but clearly designed for a laugh, with irony added by soundtrack versions of “Tainted Love” and “Season of the Witch.” Once auds catch on to the pattern that the slightest perturbation is all it takes to set Chris off, the filmmaking team can really have some fun, playing our concern for the well-being of every awkward stranger they encounter as comedy.
As in Wheatley’s “Down Terrace” and “Kill List,” there’s a guilty-pleasure aspect to the violence in “Sightseers,” in which murder is treated as a reasonable problem-solving tool for those who lack the people skills to sort things out like civilized folk. If Wheatley’s pics are pure id, obliterating the safety check between impulse and action, then “Sightseers” serves as a soft-pedal riff on the petty vigilantism of John Waters’ “Serial Mom” or Bobcat Goldthwait’s recent “God Bless America,” where characters with questionable taste get to decide who lives or dies according to their own corrupt code.
At a certain point, Tina and Chris face a serious problem: How does a couple make it work when the two parties can’t agree on an acceptable motive for offing imbeciles? That question underlines what works best about “Sightseers” — namely, that the satire is firmly seated in character, and no one understands how well a good homicide can elucidate character better than Wheatley.
In keeping with his earlier work, the helmer sticks to a loose, off-the-cuff shooting style. Though d.p. Laurie Rose’s handheld camerawork may appear undisciplined, his eye is always in the right place, and the pic’s low-budget look feels perfectly appropriate to its kitsch-collecting antiheroes.