Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ben Wheatley's dour SIGHTSEERS opens, offering life and death and dolts and dogs

Ben Wheatley's back. The unique (if that's quite the right word) filmmaker who, in 2009, graced (that is definitely not the right word) us with the "family" film Down Terrace, and in 2011 gave us the genre-jumping (while occasionally tripping over those genres) Kill List, is back again with SIGHTSEERS, a lovers-on-holiday movie that is closer in form and spirit to his first film than his second, as these lovers are (or eventually become) murderous sociopaths. And the audience has reams of fun watching them do it. Well, some audiences, anyway....

If you detect a note of distance in TrustMovies' mild appreciation of Mr. Wheatley's work, you're on the mark. (You can read my review of his earlier two films by clicking on the appropriate links in the paragraph above and then scrolling down.) Wheatley, shown at left, is relatively original, I'll give him that. You probably won't mistake his work for that of another filmmaker's. He's dark and dirty and comedic, but he doesn't seem to want to hang around the usual suspects: the career criminal types that first enticed Tarantino and his ilk. Wheatley prefers the British lower-middle- class family guys (and gals) who have become or are in the process of becoming socio/psychopathic. These are who he shows us in Down Terrace and Sightseers; in Kill List he gives us contract killers who work for and are (for a time, at least) sanctioned by their government.

Of his three movies, Sightseers is my favorite, so perhaps I am becoming something of a fan. The two leads Steve Oram and Alice Lowe -- project just the right amount of deadpan, along with the necessary charm, creepiness and barely-buried anger their roles require. The two also did the film's screenplay.

The movie has a great dog, too (this is a big month for terrific dogs: See also Starlet), who goes first by the name of Poppy and later morphs into Benji. (Did the same dog play both roles; I don't know.) Poppy/Benji adds some lift and lighter moments to the proceedings, which grow increasingly murderous and dark, as Wheatley provides his own special blend of black comedy.

The plot is basically a litany of murders, with who and why part of the "fun." This fun comes from a sociopath's POV, of course, which is part of the filmmaker's problem: You have to pretty much embrace "sociopathy" to have a good time.

Our antiheroes'/lovers' road trip take them and us around some of the more unusual of Britain's tourist spots: sometimes scenic and always a trifle odd. Class enters the picture (this is a British film, after all), along with envy and entitlement.

Sightseers is also perhaps the first of Wheatley's film in which you might say a character changes and grows. Into what, of course, is another matter. And, yes, I am being deliberately remote here in order not to spoil any of the ugly/funny surprises along the way.

The movie, from IFC Films and running 89 minutes, opens this Friday, May 10, in New York City (Landmark Sunshine Cinema) and Los Angeles (the Landmark NuArt). Three days later, on May 13, the film will hit VOD.

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