From They Live By Night and Gun Crazy to Bonnie & Clyde and Badlands to Natural Born Killers and Thelma & Louise, the doomed-couple road movie has a longstanding tradition in cinema. Initially rooted in the classical noir tradition before being reshaped in both the American Renaissance of the 60s/70s and again in the early 90s, each time reemerging with a different brand of social commentary or satire, this type of road film often taps into the darkest psychological elements of relationships by intensifying the “us against the world” conflict and pitting the intensity of the couple’s connection against whatever societal ill they take on. With Sightseers, director Ben Wheatley ushers in a new amalgamation by taking this distinctly American sub-genre and injecting a singularly Kiwi deadpan humor punctuated by random bursts of extreme violence and an absurdist worldview.
The film begins by establishing the highly dysfunctional relationship between Tina (Alice Lowe) and her mother, a parasitic relationship based on guilt, fear, and control. Tina’s case of arrested development is a trope of the genre, yet her being in her mid-30s gives her character an even stronger sense of desperation than the pixie naivete of a Bonnie Parker or Badlands’ Holly. Her new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram), who is similarly unstable, frumpy, and disconnected, soon shows up to take her on a trip around the countryside in his car and camper. As minor annoyances begin popping up, starting innocuously enough with a man dropping a piece of trash on a bus, Chris’s temper and impatience with the careless, rude, and crass people he finds himself surrounded by begin to rear their ugly head. At first, Tina tries to calm Chris by telling him to not let other peoples’ behavior ruin their vacation, but his inability to let this act go quickly turns his character from comical curmudgeon to a full-on rageaholic.
Ben Wheatley (whose wonderful previous film Kill List remains woefully underseen) adds an undercurrent of the bleakest and most twisted of black humor throughout Sightseers, providing an even more offbeat edge than its predecessor, while its abrupt tonal shifts create an increasingly palpable sense of tension between the mundanity of the couple’s daily activities and the explosive reactions that could be triggered at any moment. Tina’s reaction to discovering that Chris is a true sociopath is simultaneously hilarious as a comical non-reaction and tragic in its representation of her instinctual acquiescence, a defeated acceptance of her powerlessness both in terms of her inability to change Chris and her unwillingness to risk being alone by leaving the relationship. It is the film’s uncanny ability to find humor in the tragic and humanity in the absurd that makes it such a potent, unique exploration of the problems in male-female relationships, especially when outside the restrictive yet comforting confines of the daily routines of work and home life.
Unlike most of its predecessors in the genre, Sightseers is about the complete disconnect between its lovers, their despair only briefly and fleetingly reaching catharsis through their conjoined violence, only to lead to further misunderstandings and emotional separation that transform the intense physical barbarity of their actions into a mental violence enacted on one another. Chris’s alpha male tendencies are at first sated by Tina’s initial loyalty, but they soon become threatened once she attempts to join in on his violent exploits and place herself on the same level as him. Tina simply wants to please Chris and be a part of his world, but Chris’s outrage, misdirected as it is, doesn’t leave room for a partner. When he sees his behavior mirrored in Tina, he rejects its ugliness, and the vicious cycle of self-aggrandizing and self-hatred begins to accelerate.
The continuous push-pull dialectic established between Chris and Tina plays out on the broadest and most extreme of scales, yet, at its core, Sightseers is a small film about the difficulty of sustained human connection and the ways in which gender politics and one’s past constantly shape us. For all its similarities to other doomed-couple road films, this is the rare entry in the genre that accurately conveys how external forces can overwhelm and deteriorate the love between its protagonists rather than bring them closer towards an inseparable bond. It doesn’t hurt that it’s funny as hell too, and while it may not run as thematically deep as some of its aforementioned competitors, it has a levity and self-aware absurdity that makes it not only a different kind of beast, but also another film that marks Ben Wheatley as a young director to keep an eye on.