Article/ Blood on the Tracks: Sightseers

Ben Wheatley returns with a mordant and grisly take on British tourism

by Jason Wood

Evolving from characters created by Alice Lowe and Steve Oram for a potential television pilot, Sightseers marks the third feature by Ben Wheatley, following the respected but under-seen Down Terrace (2009) and last year’s breakthrough Kill List. Developed collaboratively with the actors, and the director’s wife and cohort Amy Jump, the film presents a tale of socially maladjusted lovers on the lam. It recalls Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde and A bout de souffle, albeit filtered through Wheatley’s idiosyncratic take on English quirks and sensibilities. Though the director is keen to play down parallels (“I don’t think too heavily about other films. These influences may slip in through the cracks”), Mike Leigh’s Nuts In May is an obvious point of comparison, both in tone and amateur rambler attire.

After the relentless intensity of Kill List, this murderous caravan journey, involving two affable psychopaths with a penchant for kinky sex, knitted underwear and meticulously planned pilgrimages to odd museums and engineering constructions of strictly marginal interest (the Keswick Pencil Museum and the Ribblehead Viaduct), feels like a return to the queasy mix of bloodshed and belly laughs of the director’s debut. “I definitely wanted to make a comedy after Kill List. It was a conscious decision. I also wanted to make something that involved a lot of improvisation because I knew the next few projects would be more technical,” comments Wheatley.

The shifts between sharp scripting and improvisation are impressively handled. Laurie Rose’s cinematography, which has a tremendously naturalistic feel, allowed Oram and Lowe’s characters to walk and move at will. Wheatley explains, “Laurie is from a documentary/reality background so this way of working doesn’t surprise him, despite being hard to manage. Allowing the actors to do pretty much what they wanted allows for all sorts of happy accidents.”

One of the principle elements of Wheatley’s work thus far is his portrayal of characters’ interaction with their urban and rural environments. If it weren’t for the murder, mayhem and sight of people becoming unstuck out in the sticks, Sightseers could be considered an amiable detour into the psycho-geography territory of Andrew Kötting and Patrick Keiller. “The landscapes become more rugged and isolated as the film moves on, and are analogous to the moods of Chris and Tina. By the end it’s just them and the land, as if they are the last people in England,” offers the director.

At the outset Chris declares, “I just want to be feared and respected. It’s not too much to ask, is it?” And as the behaviour of his protagonists becomes increasingly anachronistic, Wheatley provides the viewer with a sense of what it would be like to live completely free of moral boundaries. Given the violent imagery, this is an incredibly trusting tactic and charges the spectator with a deep level of responsibility. “I try not to judge characters in my films. They are capable of doing both terrible things and kind things. They have loves and needs, and are contradictory, just like real people.” It’s an audacious stance, but it marks Wheatley out as one of today’s most intriguing and unpredictable directors.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

Sightseers screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 30 November. Click here for more details.