Murder is a funny thing that happens in Ben Wheatley movies, though it's never been droller, drier or deadlier than in "Sightseers," the British filmmaker's latest comic assault.
He had help.
Outré improv team Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, who star in the film, spent a few years developing a stand-up act about a couple of quirky lovebirds named Tina and Chris, the nerds whose mood swings trigger "Sightseers" mayhem.
A TV pilot about the serial-killing pair was passed on as "too dark." A movie script followed and in Wheatley's hands, he apparently said, "not dark enough." He brought in longtime writing partner Amy Jump to add a few more characters he could bloody up.
Together, this crew may have single-handedly redefined the meaning of road kill. But if you are in the mood for a bizarre tale of how to rid the British countryside of some of society's modern ills — litterbugs beware — "Sightseers" should do the trick.
It all begins with a scream — the one you may be inclined to stifle as the film opens with some very loud and long keening. That's a perfect setup, since so much of the film is a send-up of the way ordinary irritations can get under your skin.
Like us, Tina (Lowe) is forced to listen. She is a bit of a frump. Thirtyish, she's still living with her mum (Eileen Davies), who is in the midst of mourning the death of Poppy, the terrier whose photos line the walls and whose spirit will linger over the film.
It's Mum's version of a guilt trip to stop her daughter from leaving on a road trip with her new boyfriend Chris (Oram). He seems affable enough, a big lug with an easy smile, fuzzy red beard and clearly smitten with Tina. He's planned a holiday traveling through the British Midlands in his classic travel trailer, an Abbey Oxford Caravan. All the tourist spots — Kenswick's Pencil Museum, Critch's Tramway Museum, the Ribblehead Viaduct, and every cave or vista point in between — have been duly noted on a map, a string of yarn wound around each push-pin to mark their route.
With Wheatley's longtime director of photography Laurie Rose handling the camera, "Sightseers" quickly feels like a home movie with panoramic shots of the countryside and closeups of everything else — nature hikes, the grill, droning tour guides. The style retains the organic vibe of the director's earlier films, but is slightly less hand-held and shaky.
Also, the visual choices are more sharply defined. For instance, the way an ice cream wrapper that starts everything is so carelessly discarded on a tour bus that it threatens to derail their holiday mood.
Tina considers cutting the trip short when an angry Chris just can't let the wrapper incident go. But after he disposes of the litterer — a Caravan can do some serious bodily damage — Tina barely blinks an eye. In a heartbeat, this ecocentric Bonnie and Clyde are off and running, eliminating various blights along the way.
Wheatley has long been fascinated by unremarkable people who can't quite get life right. Tina and Steve fit right into the lineup. The hired assassin who can't shoot straight in 2011's "Kill List" and the squabbling crime family in 2009's "Down Terrace" had already marked the director as a clever one to keep an eye on. But it is the almost accidental way Tina and Chris go about going bad that provides "Sightseers" with its twisted humor and its unexpected charm.
As in any romantic comedy, the movie's success ultimately rests with the relationship, and theirs is about as wickedly funny as they come. It begins with that awkward first time — not sex, but murder. Before long, they are squabbling over strategy and who qualifies for their hit list. There is an ease in all the sustained awkwardness, because they may be killers but they never stop being nerds. Although it no doubt helps that Oram and Lowe have lived so long in Chris' and Tina's skins, they are such a good combo. Lowe has one of those wonderfully elastic faces that can take expressions to extremes, while Oram has mastered the art of the deadpan.
The killings themselves are so slapstick in their execution that they can seem silly on the surface. But the nonsense is there to make a point. In "Sightseers," the historical stops serve as a reminder of simpler times, while the people the couple encounter represent how uncivilized the world has become. The aggressive trekker demanding the dog poop be scooped, the drunken bachelorette party are all too familiar.
Although Chris and Tina's reaction isn't exactly civilized either, by giving us a comic catharsis in "Sightseers," if you think of it, Wheatley has provided a sort of public service — like Tina and Steve's anti-litter campaign...
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: At Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles