Alice Lowe stars in Ben Wheatley's "Sightseers." (Toronto International…)
TORONTO -- British filmmaker Ben Wheatley has quickly established himself as one of the most distinctive new voices in international genre cinema. By turns funny, disturbing, sly and sharp, his three films -- “Down Terrace,” “Kill List,” which was released earlier this year, and his latest, “Sightseers,” screening at the Toronto International Film Festival -- are ostensibly a gangster picture, a horror flick and a road-trip comedy, respectively. Yet each also serves as an insightful take on family life, marriage and relationships.
“They’re not designed to be watched one after the other in a set and then have me pinned down,” said Wheatley in an interview Wednesday afternoon regarding the connective ideas among the three films. “But I think you can’t override it, as an artist, these things come through ... these preoccupations kind of come up.”
In “Sightseers,” which premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival and is set for release in the U.S. next year, Wheatley turns a caravan road-trip holiday into a gaggingly funny horrorshow. Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) are a new couple taking a trip together. When she realizes his desire for getting his way has included killing people on their journey, something within her is unleashed, setting them on off a vacation-slash-crime-spree as they take in such mundane tourist sites as a pencil museum.
In a delightful parody of what has recently come to be referred to as “mansplaining,” Chris frequently wants to give patronizing advice in the ways of camping and murder to Tina but it rapidly becomes apparent that the pupil is far surpassing her teacher. She's a natural at their new mutual pastime.
Lowe and Oram first created the characters for sketch performances and then made a short film they hoped to turn into a television series. When that didn’t work out, they wrote a film script that went through several drafts in development before Wheatley became attached. His wife and collaborator Amy Jump took a pass at the script, combining elements from the different drafts and adding some material of her own.
“For me, ‘Sightseers’ is about how you make a relationship work and the compromises people are willing to make in order to have a relationship,” Lowe said. “That to me is what is really sweet about Chris, Steve’s character, in the end he decides love is the most important thing. Even though this woman has entered into his life and generated chaos where he thought he was going to find this passive, malleable character to just do his bidding and she turned out to have a stronger will than that, by the end he sort of goes, it’s worth it not to be alone. And to me that’s quite a beautiful thing.”
Without giving anything away, the new film has a gut-punch ending similar to but distinctive from the final wallop in Wheately’s occult horror entry “Kill List,” though for the finale of “Sightseers,” Wheatley allows that “It’s a massive romantic gesture, that goes slightly wrong.”
What is so remarkable about the characters of Chris and Tina is that they fit so well into Wheatley’s world from “Down Terrace” and “Kill List,” even though he didn’t originate them. For a man who seems in person a contented father who collaborates with his wife, he makes films that have a horrible view of human relations. (“You say that, but I don’t,” he counters.)
Yet Wheatley has undeniably shown a remarkable ability for using the mechanics of genre as a means to explore sensitive ideas while still providing the thrills and surprises audiences expect.
His next film, “A Field in England,” set in the 17th century during the English Civil War, will, he says, offer his distinctive take on historical drama -- just as “Kill List” did with horror and “Sightseers” does with comedy.
“I think genre is just a framework for delivering a message, and it depends on what your message is,” Wheatley said. “It’s handy, genre, because you know what the structure is, you know it’s a machine that’s going to get you through the movie as an audience, so there’s certain beats you want and understand. And then when you slightly move them around it has an effect on an audience.”