‘Sightseers’ and the Horrors of Intimacy
July 12th, 2021 | By Jo Reid
Soggy country walks to National Trust properties, quaint tourist traps, and rain hammering on the caravan roof. In Sightseers, director Ben Wheatley captures a very specific kind of English country holiday, where tomato pasta is consumed from tin bowls in a muddy campsite, and relationships are forged and tested in long car journeys and over pub lunches. The film follows new couple Tina (Alice Lowe) and Chris (Steve Oram) as they holiday around the Midlands in a caravan. As Chris and Tina grow closer, they lead an increasingly violent and destructive path of murder across the English countryside.
Sightseers shines a light on both Tina and Chris as individuals and as a couple. This is their first chance to truly get to know each other and test the sustainability of the relationship. The cinematography contrasts their grey and concrete urban homes with the countryside of endless mountains and winding country roads. As they set off down the motorway, leaving the city behind them, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” bluntly thumps “sometimes I feel I’ve got to run away/I’ve got to get away.” Their relationship is built on a shared desire to briefly escape ordinary lives. On the road they are each other’s constant, therefore it is the ideal space to explore and develop their relationship together.
In Sightseers, the caravan is the primary setting for much of Tina and Chris’ relationship. It is not only a site to get to know each other emotionally and sexually but is a physical manifestation of their developing relationship. While Chris owns the caravan, Tina decorates it with potpourri and knickknacks, adding her own charm. As a physical space, the caravan represents the freedom they find together. However, the caravan is a small, temporary accommodation only used over the course of a holiday rather than a permanent home. This is a temporary fantasy rather than a sustainable future.
Oram, who also co-wrote the film, stated that the choice of caravan was specific to Chris as a character: “It’s about the frontier spirit in a weird way [..] he’s pushing his way forward, imposing himself on the UK”. It is fitting that the first on-screen murder uses the caravan as a weapon, where Chris squishes a litterer under its wheels. The murder is gory; sickening crunches and blood splatters. Despite its brutality, Tina and Chris do not linger on the death the way the camera does. Rather than being horrified, the pair are horny, immediately having sex in their caravan. Even when this murder appears accidental, the violence is a catalyst for Tina and Chris’ first on-screen act of physical intimacy. For both, murder is intoxicating and erotic.
As Sightseers progresses, and Tina joins in on the murder spree, their dynamic shifts. Although Chris’ motives for murder have been extremely petty and indicative of his own insecurities, whenever Tina murders for the same reasons, he aggressively disapproves. When Tina tries to initiate sex after killing a flirtatious bride-to-be, Chris rejects her. He states that her murder was not sexy nor justified and that Tina was “not qualified” to make these decisions over life and death—the same decisions he makes frequently.
While sharing his passions with Tina initially brought them closer together, Chris finds this vulnerability frightening. Revealing his murderous streak not only risks the possibility of arrest—Tina’s murders are far more conspicuous—but risks losing his own identity. To Chris, Tina represents a loss of control, and therefore a loss of the self. He views his own murders as an expression of righteous justice. Tina’s murders expose this as the same petty acts of violence as hers. Chris was initially attracted to the joys of intimacy, both physical and emotional. As Tina becomes more dominant, he becomes fearful of what he loses if he commits to her: control.
Not only do Chris and Tina cause each other emotional harm as their relationship deteriorates, but the harm is externalized. Sightseers does not forget the human cost of their relationship. Neither are able to solve disagreements and resentments in a healthy way, instead using violence towards others as a proxy. They blight the landscape with blood, gore, and death. Natural materials are frequently used as murder weapons, from rocks to sticks to great heights. Nature represents freedom for the pair, but nature is also something to be wielded under their control to make their mark on the world.
As the consequences of their relationship are highlighted—and as they become closer—this violence becomes wilder and more destructive. Fittingly, as their relationship gets worse, the external landscape and weather become harsher and less forgiving. Instead of rain pattering on the roof of the caravan, it is rock-hard hailstones, the noise a deafening staccato.
The end of Sightseers is the culmination of Chris and Tina’s toxic relationship. As they approach Ribblesead Viaduct, they gaze at their burning caravan. The caravan has come to not only house but symbolize their relationship; from its promises of domesticity and freedom to its use as a weapon in multiple brutal murders. While it offers an opportunity to escape, as star and co-writer Alice Lowe states in an interview, “there’s also something protective about a caravan […] you feel like you’re safe and you can lock it away.”
The caravan aflame is fittingly soundtracked to “The Power of Love,” as it remains destructive, all-consuming, and impossible to look away from. Like Tina, the fire is chaotic and uncontrollable, and like Chris, the destruction leaves a permanent mark on the English Countryside. Tina and Chris decide purposefully that their journey has ended. They now physically cannot return to their old lives.
After this seemingly final act of violence and commitment, they stand atop the viaduct. This echoes Tina’s previous words of “wouldn’t it be romantic if we just died together.” While she views death as the ultimate act of intimacy and devotion, Tina betrays Chris at the last moment. She lets him fall to his death while she remains on top of the viaduct. She is unable to fully give herself to Chris the way she expects of him. While Chris murders to gain control and Tina murders to lose control, in the final moments the dynamic is flipped. Her final murder of Chris reveals that she is unwilling to lose herself to this relationship. However, by this action, she is left alone.
Sightseers asks what we gain from being in a committed relationship. The more Chris and Tina become intimate, the more aspects of themselves they share, the more ugly, petty, and jealous they become. They are unable to communicate with each other or overcome their insecurities, which manifests itself in bloody murder. However, despite the ruinous nature of their relationship, it is also a source of constant joy for the two accomplices. The holiday provides an opportunity to shake off their mundane lives and live without restraint. They find freedom in each other and are able to be unashamedly themselves in a manner they cannot be with others. There’s a morbid sweetness to it all—it’s just a shame their true selves are serial killers.