0378 | The Skeleton Twins

It goes without saying that every year throws up its fair share of overlooked gems, and I’d like to make a case here that one of the most slept-on films of 2014 is Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins, a pin-sharp comedy-drama that makes the most of the chemistry shared by its two stars, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. They play a pair of estranged siblings, Milo and Maggie, who are reunited in disturbing fashion when Milo botches a suicide attempt in LA and Maggie hears about it over the phone back east, coincidentally just as she is about to take an overdose herself. And while suicide and comedy are not easy bedfellows, Johnson’s screenplay (co-written by Black Swan writer Mark Heyman) is necessarily sympathetic to the fragile states of mind of the two characters, exploring their shared depression and their complicated personal relationships with subtlety and grace while also giving each a sharply-humorous rough edge (Milo in particular uses acerbic sarcasm as a preemptive strike at pretty much everyone he meets). Some indies manage to get this balance between tears and laughter just right, but fewer still are also able to address the various emotions that lie in-between while also factoring in the possible causes for such a swing. Johnson has a commendable stab here.

Hader and Wiig have worked together for years, of course, and although I’ve been impressed by the latter in a couple of serious roles of late (I personally think she should pick up one or two heavy duty award nominations at the very least for her performance in The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, but that’s a discussion for another month) this is the first time I can remember seeing Hader play it straight (his character’s gay; no pun intended). I guess the actor’s responsible for as many (if not more) laughs here than in the fratpack comedies that have helped to gradually raise his profile, but as a fan I’m glad to see he can handle the emotionally-fraught, serious stuff this well too. Both leads established their comic credentials on Saturday Night Live of course – joining and leaving the show around the same time as one another – and their casting as brother and sister here makes perfect sense. There are several scenes where each looks to be on the verge of making their counterpart laugh, such as the one in which they chat while sharing some laughing gas, and it makes it seem as though we’re watching characters who really do know each other well. (And with that in mind I dread to think how many takes they needed for the joyously uplifting lip sync number set to Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.)

Milo moves in with Maggie and her gregarious husband Lance (Luke Wilson shining as a well-meaning semi-doofus) at the beginning of the story, and the tentative reconnection with his sister plays out in tandem with a tentative reconnection with his hometown, condensed into a subplot involving a former English teacher who Milo slept with at the age of 15 and never quite got over (Ty cdn.indiewire.comBurrell). Milo’s mental health issues are out in the open but Maggie’s are hidden, and her concerns lie with the suitability of Lance as a life partner and her own suitability as a mother in the future. Hanging over the pair are the famous words of Philip Larkin: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.‘ And thus the screenplay suggests that Milo and Maggie’s shared anguish has its roots, understandably, in their father’s suicide and the awkward relationship they have with their new-age mother (Joanna Gleason), who briefly appears in one awkward scene.

I liked Johnson’s recurring symbolism, which prominently links death and water, and I enjoyed the performances by the two leads, who gently remind us that it’s possible for actors to make the move from comedy to serious drama by walking down less obvious paths (or rather ones that are less obvious in the way that they demand your attention) than those trodden in recent years by Jim Carrey or Steve Carell. A year ago I had no idea either Wiig or Hader were this good, despite liking the sketches and brief cinematic appearances of both generally. Obviously Hader has now appeared in two of the biggest films of the summer, but I doubt that means he’ll stop making more films like The Skeleton Twins in the future. Wiig, meanwhile, is fast becoming one of my favourite actresses.

Directed by: Craig Johnson.
Written by: Craig Johnson, Mark Heyman.
Starring: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell.
Cinematography: Reed Morano.
Editing: Jennifer Lee.
Music: Nathan Larson.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 93 minutes.
Year: 2014.

Comments 14

  1. Tom October 13, 2015

    Excellent, she is becoming one of my favorites as well. At this point Wiig can really do no wrong. Between this, her turn in the similarly under-seen (but in my judgment less memorable) Loveship Hateship, her breakout comedic supporting role in Knocked Up (just throwing that in for some contrast), and her privileged appearance in The Martian (that’s high profile!) I really respect what she’s been able to do after SNL. It’s kind of mind-blowing actually, she is really talented.

    I’m glad you liked this film, as I thought it really balanced the thorny subject matter with a comedic tone and it came out neither awkward nor too heavy-handed. Sure, there were heavy moments in it and it wasn’t all fun and games, but it’s a really good indie film. Need to see it again.

    • Stu October 13, 2015

      I must admit I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen of her work from the past year (as I said in the review, her performance in The Diary Of A Teenage Girl is the one I’ve enjoyed the most, but this runs it a close second). I think she is still noticably a comic actor, and casting her in a serious part in The Martian didn’t really make sense to me, but she is slowly moving away from that kind of fratpack/SNL alumnus stuff by the looks of things…even if this does also star Hader! I think the Sundance approval maybe put a few people off this, but I liked it and glad to hear you’re a fan!

      • Tom October 13, 2015

        Yeah, totally meant to include her performance in this in that list. She was definitely great here. Wiig has a very diverse skill set that we hopefully will get to see more of over the next few years.

  2. Big Screen Small Words October 13, 2015

    Pairing Wiig and Hader for this film works well – both performances were great, and their characters balance each other. Hader transcends well into a dramatic role, and I actually like Wiig here (I’ve always struggled with liking her performances in movies). The film makes a wonderful addition to their filmography, and I’m looking forward for Hader to tackle more roles like this, as well as Wiig’s other dramatic works.

    • Stu April 18, 2016

      Just going through some old posts and realised I didn’t reply to this comment – sorry about that! I agree with you – they make a great (and believable) pairing as brother and sister, and I think both have the ability to take on serious roles as well as comedic ones. I like them both a lot!

  3. Adam (Consumed by Film) October 15, 2015

    Great write-up Stu. I think I might need to give this one another go. I enjoyed it, especially the performances of the two leads, but for some reason it left me feeling a bit cold. The death/water link is something I hadn’t noticed, colour me intrigued!

    • Stu October 15, 2015

      Cheers Adam. It’s got quite a cold feel to it, particularly the ending. There’s quite a lot of that symbolism…the obvious scene in the pool near the end, the dead goldfish in the tank, the attempted suicide in the bath at the beginning, the references to Moby Dick, and so on. I think I missed the bit where it explained how their dad died (I’ve got a bad habit of not pausing films when I go and make a cup of tea), so presumably that’s linked in to it as well.

  4. Mark Walker October 17, 2015

    You’re certainly churning out the reviews, man. I’m struggling to keep up but I’ll get through as many as possible.

    Glad to hear you praise this. I’ve been curious about it but wasn’t sure if it was my kinda thing. It sounds as if it is, though. It’s on the list 🙂

    • Stu October 17, 2015

      Yeah I’m on the dole at the moment! I really need to get a job soon though so it’ll quieten down to two or three a week again at that point! Even though it’s a comedy drama I’m always wary of recommending anything I’ve found funny as other people may not go for it in the same way. But I’d say worth a go. No worries about reading everything, I wouldn’t expect anyone to!

      • Mark Walker October 17, 2015

        On the dole? Well that explains it! 😉

        Yeah, this was recommended to me a while back (I forget who now) but I didn’t look into it too much. Now I’ll have to. You tend to be on the same wavelength as me.

  5. Todd Benefiel October 19, 2015

    This was, unbelievably, available from Netflix Streaming, so I stopped reading your review and added the film to my queue. I liked what I’ve read of your review so far; let’s hope it doesn’t suddenly disappoint me when I get back to reading the rest of it.

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