For decades, books, movies and TV series have fetishized serial killers as shrewd, sophisticated chess players using innocent humans as their sacrificial pawns. Think Hannibal, Dexter or that spooky chick in Year One of the British series “Luther.” (Netflix it; Idris Elba in the title role is amazing.) Readers and viewers lap this stuff up. But pop culture overlooks a much bigger reality: most serial killers aren’t brilliant, misunderstood cosmic gamesmen but stupid, aimless jerks.
That’s the eye-opening, if limited, viewpoint of the comedy “Sightseers.” Alice Lowe, who co-wrote the screenplay, stars (if such a verb applies here) as Tina, a mopey British drudge proud of her degree in dog psychology, which is worth just about the value of the paper the diploma is printed on. Living at home with her crotchety mother, Tina takes off (against Mom’s advice) with her new boyfriend, Chris (Steve Oram). Traveling the countryside in his caravan, aka a camping trailer, they plan to visit some of Britain’s geekier oddities. The tram and pencil museums. A cave. Druidic stone circles. An old aqueduct.
On their first day, Chris accidentally backs the vehicle over a rude litterbug they met earlier on a sightseeing tour. Or was it an accident?
It’s not such a surprise that Chris — who talks often about the book he intends to write but never sits down to actually write — has a short fuse that detonates in a homicide or two. It’s a little more surprising, and the most interesting thing about “Sightseers,” that Tina becomes not only a sympathetic accomplice but turns into the prime instigator of a modest killing spree that randomly includes randy drunken girls and eco-friendly bicyclists.
You know what? I’ve probably said too much, because the plot of “Sightseers” is pretty thin on the ground. Its main pleasures come from the off-kilter dialogue between Tina and Chris. “There’s something in me, Tina,” he says of his literary aspirations, and she vows to help him “squeeze it out.” And after Chris offs a hiker on the moors, Tina’s first priority is “See if he’s got any sandwiches.”
“Sightseers” is a small, half-there movie. Bobcat Goldthwait went much bigger and broader when he riffed on a similar idea with “God Bless America” (2011), in which a middle-aged man teams up with a teenage girl in a mission to kill the sort of oafs who text and talk in the multiplex. The specific satirical punches he aimed at ignorant “Amuhricans” landed too often with thuds. “Sightseers,” unlike that movie, isn’t trying to be a cultural critique, and as a result its effect is both slighter and larger. What lingers after the film ends is the notion that, indeed, you may well have met unremarkable people like Chris and Tina and that you easily and unwittingly may have offended them just enough to make them want to kill you.
“Sightseers” isn’t funny enough to make you guffaw and isn’t grim enough to get under your skin. (If you think murderers are cool, I recommend “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” as a corrective.) But there’s an interesting aesthetic at work here. Director Ben Wheatley was responsible for a brutally fascinating 2011 whatsit called “Kill List,” a crime-and-spook-show hybrid that played like a marriage of “The Sopranos” and “The Wicker Man.” (That’s another Netflix recommendation.) It wasn’t entirely successful in the end, but scene by scene it was powerfully creepy. Here Wheatley isn’t going for creeps but for laughs — though of a squirmy, comedy-of-discomfort kind. If you’ve read this far, you’ll probably know whether that’s a recommendation or a caveat.
“Sightseers.” With Alice Lowe, Steve Oram. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Unrated. 88 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.