Sometimes you don’t want to hear how everything’s going to be alright. You just need someone to share the chaos with you. The Skeleton Twins is about reconnecting with that someone who makes the din between your ears just a little bit quieter. Superbly acted from a pitch-perfect script, this indie darling should make its presence known come award season. More importantly, it’s imbued with a quiet dignity that rises above patronizing head pats and simple solutions. It’s messy and real and sticks with you long after the laughs have subsided and the tears have stopped flowing.
Their father called them ‘The Gruesome Twosome’ when they were kids. Perhaps it was their fascination with the macabre, or perhaps he recognized his own demons stirring inside them (the same demons that drove him to suicide years later). Whatever the reason, Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader) were touched by darkness at an early age and they can’t seem to shake it.
Estranged for over ten years, the siblings are re-united when Milo “gets drunk and does something stupid.” In this case, stupid means slicing his wrist in the bathtub. Maggie learns about his suicide attempt just as she’s about to down a handful of sleeping pills. Now we know why this film isn’t called ‘The Happy Twins.’
These opening scenes might hint at a film anxious to celebrate its own darkness, but the filmmakers have something far more sinister in mind. They want to create actual human beings, with hopes and dreams, virtues and shortcomings, and absolutely no guarantee they will survive this ordeal. Writer-director Craig Johnson and his co-writer, Mark Heyman, respect the darkness but they aren’t afraid of it. Instead, it lurks in the corner like some unwanted houseguest, occasionally insinuating itself when someone is foolish enough to believe it got bored and went home. This darkness never leaves. You acknowledge it and you learn to live with it… or you don’t.
It’s an inspired choice selecting two actors with such an energetic twinkle in their eye to tackle this bleak material. Wiig and Hader give revelatory performances that rival any you’re likely to see this year. The energetic twinkle is still there, but it sneaks out in tiny portions, usually thanks to alcoholic or pharmaceutical inducements. They understand these characters well enough to know that letting your guard down is a dangerous game to play. Relishing life too much only exposes you to soul-crushing disappointment. Both actors are still extremely funny—you can’t hide perfect comic timing—but it’s bathed in a layer of snark and dark sarcasm.
The Skeleton Twins reminds one of Kenneth Lonergan’s understated masterpiece You Can Count on Me. The hopeless brother, drifting from one predicament to the next, comes to visit the sister who stayed behind to live the ‘normal’ life. Of course, the sister is never as normal as she appears and the brother is never completely hopeless. Maggie is trying to live the dream, complete with a husband (Luke Wilson) who is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. They own a nice house, and they’re even planning to have a baby. And yet, Maggie is standing in her bathroom with a handful of sleeping pills. Perhaps the ultimate compliment to Johnson and Heyman is that they have crafted a textured film in which it’s perfectly reasonable for these incongruent circumstances to co-exist. And much like Lonergan’s gem, it’s all because of great writing and exquisite acting.
Sure, this film falls prey to a few indie tropes. There’s lip-synching and dancing to a kitschy ‘80s pop song (mandatory for any contemporary American indie film), and a largely unsatisfying subplot involving Milo and the high school English teacher who molested him (played with surprising vulnerability by Ty Burrell), but these blips never detract from the story’s laser focus. Milo and Maggie must help one another make peace with the darkness. Coming to understand what that looks like, and how it manifests itself differently for each of them, never ceases to be involving.
The Skeleton Twins is a quiet, thoughtful film that resonates with humanity. The directing is assured, the writing first-rate, and it features two of the best leading performances of the year. It’s a heartfelt movie that never exploits its dark side for a few cheap tears. The tears are well-earned, thank you very much.
— J.R. Kinnard