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Grisly dark comedy has too little to offer

Fri., June 21, 2013, midnight

Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers” is an intriguingly odd film, an aggressively dark comedy and an acidic satire on British social mores about a romantic road trip that turns into a spontaneous killing spree. It’s both intensely unpleasant and weirdly uproarious, as so much English humor is, but it wears itself out well before it’s over.

The film follows a mousy couple somewhere in their 30s, Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe), who have loaded up his caravan with plans of exploring the countryside, including such picturesque locations as the Cumberland Pencil Museum.

Everything appears to be on course, but then there’s a twist: On a tram ride, Chris becomes enraged when a man drops a wrapper and refuses to pick it up. So he does what any balanced person would do and runs the litterbug over with his car.

This begins a string of brutal murders, as Chris and Tina hop from one destination to another, killing off anyone who dares to disrupt the serenity of their vacation. Tina is slow to catch on, as she seems to have the mental capacity of a toddler, but soon enough she, too, starts rationalizing homicide.

The screenplay, written by its two stars, has some sly moments and a few unexpected detours, and its final scene is effective in its cold, existential irony. The problem, however, is that “Sightseers” really only has one joke to tell – the bodies keep piling up, and the killers are increasingly laissez-faire about it – and it’s repeated over and over. Even at a scant 88 minutes, we can sense a serious strain.

It’s obvious that Wheatley is a talented director, with a good eye for visuals and the potential for a refreshingly off-kilter style, but he so often values cleverness over palatability. His previous film, an intense thriller called “Kill List,” was essentially an exercise in manipulation, an onslaught of carnage with a particularly grisly punchline, and “Sightseers” is that movie’s smirking mirror image.

Maybe there’s an audience for “Sightseers,” one that will get a kick out of its droll approach to gore. And maybe there’s a cultural disconnect that’s keeping me at arm’s length from the movie’s intensely British sensibilities. In the end, though, “Sightseers” is a little too self-satisfied, too cynical, and too repetitious for me to muster up anything more than a mild admiration.

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