Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, 2012) and the violent road movie

Firstly, I should add that this is a purely reflective post on the film Sightseers (Wheatley, 2012) and my postulations on the road movie sub-genre.

Sightseers is a black/ dark comedy, which focuses upon the nascent embers of a new relationship between Tina and Chris as they embark upon their first holiday: a caravan road trip around some of the UK’s ‘famous’ sites, such as the Pencil and Tram museums. Since my area of study and area of “expertise” is concentrated upon Francophone and French-speaking Cinema, it is easy to see the parallels with the Belgian low-budget exploitation movie Man bites Dog, which explores, in the form of comedy, the violent and sexual exploits of a serial killer/ hitman in Wallonia. With this link, one can see that this road movie transcends into a Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967), Badlands (Malick, 1973) or Natural Born Killers (Stone, 1994) odyssey of incessant murders. I must add that, to my knowledge this British black comedy is not based upon a true story. In the European context, it is oft postulated that the road movie or travel film explores the journey “into national culture” in which the protagonist(s) embark upon an exploration of their identity in relation to the national environment. The shifting landscapes are viewed against the character’s psyche, thereby drawing the contours of the cultural and psychical space. This film does mark an exploration of a psychical space, since the act of journeying perpetuates the characters’ ability to engage with repressed sexual and violent desires. The caravan provides an ephemeral existence; they are not rooted to a particular space, which allows the characters to avoid re-crimination.

The film opens with the 34-year old Tina (played by co-writer Alice Lowe), who still lives at home with her mother and is unable to “sever” the parental ties, which perpetuates her existence in a child-like mental and physical state. She still relies upon her mother to comb her hair, which highlights her level of dependency. The journey in the caravan is therefore a new lease of life for Tina; it is a way for her to liberate herself from her dependent position and engage with and explore her sexual needs and desires. In this sense, it is a coming of age and a change in her psychical state.

The journey and the relationship between Tina and Chris (played by co-writer Steve Oram) allow the characters to transcend their myopic existence, in particular for Tina who appears to have never escaped her mother’s parental guidance. For Chris, the holiday is a way to start anew; it is his aim to have a sabbatical from work and become a writer, thereby entering a new psychical space and embark upon a new journey in his life. However, as we later discover, he has been made redundant (a common element within this current period of recession and austerity) and is gradually transforming himself, taking on the qualities and ‘lives’ of the people that he kills. Initially, the element of death is introduced to the spectator in the guise of an accident, but it later transpires that the motives for each death are pre-mediated in his case. After discovering Chris’ actions, Tina engages in his pursuit of murder, but in an impetuous manner. Chris is found to ‘justify’ and ‘excuse’ his murders, since they are for the greater good of the nation and for society in general. This is primarily the case after he murders a man and claims him to be ‘probably’ a Daily Mail reader: shorthand for referring to a person who reads the daily newspaper and consequently harbours an archaic conception of British society and values, and is against a progressive and multicultural British society. Tina extends the reasoning for his murders as for the greater good of the global society and even for the human impact upon the environment. By killing people, Chris is reducing his (and their) Carbon footprint. This is therefore referencing our individual impact upon the globe and the environment.

The road-movie is oft conceived as a sub-genre that allows for marginal figures, rebels and outcasts, to liberate themselves from the constraints and shackles of society, to discover a void where they can indulge in their desires and destinies. In this sense, the sense of freedom that the characters enjoy is one free from the law and a space where they can indulge their repressed sexual and violent fantasies in habitual society. The time on the road lifts these invisible societal boundaries.

The ending of the film (I will not ruin it) avoids a poetic Bonnie and Clyde-type finale and forgoes poetic justice in an industry and medium that often favours harmonic resolutions.



One response to “Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, 2012) and the violent road movie

  1. Its an unusual film as there are very few British road-movies – its an almost exclusively American genre – there’s nowhere to go in Britain. SIGHTSEERS is interesting as it occupies eccentric countryside rather than the non-places of something like BUTTERFLY KISS (1995).

    Interesting site … I’ve followed.

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