The Skeleton Twins (2014)

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I haven’t been paying attention to the marketing of the film. Judging from the poster, with the cheery bright blue background, and the word “funny” in a large font, I imagine it’s being marketed as a comedy. Not a surprise, perhaps, because of the two former SNL stars, but it does this quiet uneasy film a disservice. If people go into it expecting a ton of laughs, they won’t find it. And so maybe people will be disappointed as a result, when the problem is their own, not the film’s. There are a couple of hilarious sequences in The Skeleton Twins and they come like gasps of fresh pure oxygen (in one case quite literally), almost dangerous, highlighting the destroyed landscape of the lives of the two main characters. But it is not a “funny” film or a comedy. It’s a thoughtful, poignant, sometimes-disturbing character study of twins who had a couple of horrendous things happen to them when they were young, and now here they are, adults, and they’re still all messed up about it. Decades later. No Band-Aid will fix it.

Some things, when they get broke, get broke for good.

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Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play twins, Milo and Maggie, who haven’t seen one another or even spoken in about a decade. The reasons why are never made clear, but you get the sense that the shared trauma of their childhood has made intimacy almost impossible. Someone who knows what you went through, who went through it with you, may seem like a comfort, but that’s really only true from a privileged outsider standpoint. Often people need to keep their distance from those who knew them at their most vulnerable. This seems to be the case with Milo and Maggie.

The film opens with both of them on the verge of suicide, separated by an entire continent. Milo, wasted, writes a good-bye note, steps into a tub, and opens a vein. Across the country, Maggie stands in her bathroom, staring down at a handful of pills in her hand. Her phone rings. It is a hospital in Los Angeles, calling to inform her that her brother has been admitted, attempted suicide. Maggie flies to be with him. The opening scenes are quiet and sad, and withhold more than they reveal. The pieces are given to us in fragments, just glimpses, throughout the course of the film. We know something bad must have gone down. We don’t know what. We find out.

Part of the intense pleasure of the film (and it is, despite its dark subject, intensely pleasurable) is that it knows what it is, and takes its time in revealing what it wants to reveal. When the revelations come, they are handled gently and sadly, organically. The information doesn’t feel manipulative, as it might in more Lifetime-television hands. All we really need to know is there in that opening sequence.

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Maggie is married and still living in their home town of Nyack; she has a better surface going on in her life than Milo does, but she, in many ways, is even more of a wreck. She is a world-class liar. She keeps secrets without even really realizing they are secrets. She is self-destructive. She doesn’t even realize how bad things are with her until she brings Milo back to her house to recover.

Maggie is married to Lance (Luke Wilson, absolutely perfect in the role, so perfect I can’t picture anyone else pulling it off). Lance is a gregarious kindly extrovert, a nature-lover, a fantasy-football-guy, a friendly and humorous presence, who loves Maggie and really honestly is “the nicest guy in the world,” as Maggie calls him. And he’s not a Nice Guy(™). I know guys like Lance. They are my family members. I’ve dated a Lance or two. They exist. But they so rarely show up in film without some comment being made about the character. You know, he’s nice, therefore he’s a dupe! Or he’s nice, therefore he’s really a jerk on the inside. No one can be that nice, right? Well, sorry, unimaginative screenwriters, yes, there are people that nice, and they are INTERESTING if you would get to know them and give them a little bit of room to breathe in your screenplays. (Mark Heyman co-wrote the screenplay with director Craig Johnson.) Luke Wilson really IS that guy.

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He is stable, steady, and kind. To a depressive like Milo, Lance’s energy seems way too much, it feels like an assault. Why is this guy so happy to meet him?? Well, because he’s Lance, and because he loves Maggie, and has always wished to know his wife’s brother more. So Lance treats Milo entering their household like a gift. Lance is an emissary from the world of Health. You can see why Maggie would be attracted to such a guy. He runs interference for her, you can see him do it, you can see him protect her, support her, be there for her, in his every gesture. He and Maggie are trying to have a baby, and he’s open and unembarrassed about it, about how excited he is, how much fun it will be to “try,” and all that. Luke Wilson is so good that you actually start to worry for the guy. You know that he has no idea how messed up Maggie is. He’s not a dupe or a fool. Her behavior tells no tales. He loves her. He’s a side character in the film, and there are other side characters, but as the film follows Maggie around, watching what she’s like when she’s alone, I started to feel truly concerned about Lance. That is entirely Luke Wilson’s doing. It’s a small marvel, that performance.

But everyone is marvelous here. Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are completely believable as not only siblings, but twins. They are in sync, they are playful, and when they fight, they go for the jugular. There’s a moment near the end when a comment flies out of Maggie’s mouth, in the heat of the moment, and she has gone too far. She knows it. Milo knows it. And instantly, a look of agony and fear cracks across Wiig’s face, a pained inner scream of “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry”, her hand clapping over her mouth. Listen, it’s not a surprise at all that Kristen Wiig is a dramatic actress of the highest order. I rank her up there with Madeline Kahn, in that her ability to channel different characters reach an almost uncanny height, and also allows her to tap as easily into tragedy as she does into comedy. Many of her well-known characters on SNL were masterpieces of loneliness and pain, as funny as they were. Kristen Wiig can do anything. Like Madeline Kahn could do anything. Like Catherine O’Hara can do anything. And perhaps something about coming up via comedy makes one less concerned over being ugly/awful onscreen. Perhaps part of comedy is being able to bring out the grotesque side of yourself. Some young female stars, who get the hefty A-list parts, are still so concerned with being liked that it messes up their work. Everything they do comes across as a plea for understanding. Wiig doesn’t do that. She couldn’t care less.

And Bill Hader is wonderful as Milo. Heartbreaking. Riveting. Funny, grounded, fragile. Milo is gay, and once upon a time dreamt of being an actor. He moved to LA to chase that dream, and obviously nothing came of it. He was in a relationship once. It failed. Milo drinks too much, “acts out” when he’s drunk, and continues to yearn towards suicide.

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Joanna Gleason has a terrific cameo as Maggie and Milo’s narcissistic New-Agey mother, who lives in Sedona, and has pretty much been cut out of both of her children’s lives. She is clueless, self-absorbed, and speaks entirely in New Age speak, a substitute for actual connection. Making fun of New Agey types is like shooting fish in a barrel but Gleason makes Milo and Maggie’s mother a real person, a woman hiding behind those tropes because so much that has happened in her past is, frankly, too traumatic to even absorb. We all have our ways of survival. Gleason is great.

The pleasure in the film comes from the fact that so much of it features people sitting around talking. Good old-fashioned scene-work. It’s my type of movie. Plot shmlot, let me see people who are somehow bound to one another sit around and talk and behave. Let me pick up on what I pick up on. Let the script breathe. Let the moments in between the words have some wiggle-room. The Skeleton Twins is all about that. There were moments of legitimate pain, when I found myself in tears for these two poor people, both doing the best they can, both failing. Maggie has a moment where she fucks up, again, and there’s a quick cut to Wiig sitting alone in her car, beating her hands on the steering wheel crying out, “BULL SHIT. BULL SHIT!!! BULL SHIT!” She looks truly afraid. Marvelous.

There are a couple of sequences where the twins let loose, and the joy that comes careening off the screen is so intense, so piercing, that I found myself catching my breath. These moments capture so perfectly what it is like to have siblings. There it is. That’s the relationship. Films so rarely get siblings right. There’s one scene where Milo and Maggie sniff nitrous in Maggie’s office (she’s a dental hygienist), and all hell breaks loose. The laughter is so uproarious that the two of them are silent for long stretches, staring at one another with huge frozen comedy-masks on their faces. There’s another fantastic scene where the two of them lip-synch around the living room to Jefferson Starship’s “Heart to Heart”, ridiculous, hilarious, clearly something they did as kids. Craig Johnson lets that scene play out. He has the confidence to understand how much we need it. It’s a long scene. They do almost the whole entire song. It’s patient, that scene. It feels no rush to end itself, to move onto the next thing.

There is one good scene after another. There isn’t a bad scene in the bunch.

It’s not a feel-good story, and as the film moves on you become more and more conscious of the sheer amount of wreckage surrounding these two people. There’s no real hopeful “button” put on all of this, but the film is not without joy. It’s about family. There’s pain and sorrow, there’s unresolved shit, there’s unspeakable shit, and there’s also goofing off while under the influence of nitrous. It’s all part of the same flow. By the end, you really feel like you have met some people. For real.

I saw it yesterday at a noon show. The theatre was completely empty except for me and another woman. We both had a blast, and walked out of the theatre talking about it, as though we were lifelong friends and had come to the movie together.

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25 Responses to The Skeleton Twins (2014)

  1. stevie says:

    Sweetie! I have been LOVING your movie reviews so much lately and am thrilled to add this movie to my to-see list. Under The Skin was phenomenal, but seeing it after reading your piece gave me the full-on Pauline Kael frisson I didn’t even know I craved. You quadruple the value of seeing the film – oh, Sheila, you’re doing magnificent work.

    What did you think of Starred Up?

    Love you forever with all my heart and am so proud of you. Xxx Stevie

    • sheila says:

      Stevie!!! xoxoxoxo love you too!!

      “Pauline Kael frisson” – now I like the sound of that!

      Dammit, I missed Starred Up for, like, the 3 days it played in New York and stupidly I hadn’t gone to any screenings. I have heard amazing things and this Jack O’Connell guy is gonna be huge. I can’t wait to see 71 – all Belfast in 1971? Jack O’Connell? Yes, please. I haven’t even seen him in anything yet and I’m excited about him.

      What did you think?

  2. stevie says:

    O’Connell is mesmerizing. Brando came to mind, the explosions and implosions are as authentic. He gets his Pillow Book bona fides out of the way, which is nice for us devotees of that sort of thing. He has an A+ heartbreakdown, there is exhilarating tension throughout, and a few practical tips for toolmaking in prison. The actor who plays his father is just as riveting. I would love to know your reaction. Huge stardom is a real possibility. It’s all about roles and decisions now. Wouldn’t you like to advise someone like that, help them see what they’re doing? I suppose Ms. Jolie sees something!

    • sheila says:

      // He gets his Pillow Book bona fides out of the way, //

      hahahahaha

      And yes! Angelina Jolie clocked it! Can’t wait for THAT movie as well.

      He’s having a hell of a year!! I’ve Googled around to see if Starred Up is playing around anywhere still – coming up with nothing. Bummer. Gonna try to catch 71 at the New York Film Festival this week.

  3. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Yes, yes, yes. Thank you. Haven’t seen it yet (this is Keene, NH, after all), but cannot wait. So, yes, yes, yes.

  4. Lizzie says:

    This movie sounds great–Kristen Wiig has an honesty in everything she does that never seems self-congratulatory. And I really enjoy watching Luke Wilson–he has a real gift for portraying men who are Decent, in the truest sense of the word. He had it in The Family Stone, and even in his (underwritten) role in Legally Blonde–even though those roles are pretty different, he brought an integrity and a true NICEness–so much so that it’s hard to imagine someone else who could bring those same qualities! They’re also all movies that are very ensemble based and he’s definitely a supporting role within that structure, where he’s actually providing great support and strengthening the movie as a whole in a way that seems very old-school. Someone who might have been a great supporting character actor in the studio system–a less-buffoonish Ralph Bellamy, perhaps?

    • sheila says:

      I loved him in The Family Stone! Yes! As well as Legally Blonde. These could be seen as “thankless” roles but you are so right: he brings such a decent-ness to them, such a real sense of nice-ness – that is unmistakable. He does not condescend to these characters. He’s just wonderful! So super handsome, too – but that becomes almost irrelevant in these roles he gets.

  5. mutecypher says:

    I watched this tonight, what an excellent movie. I knew who Kristen Wiig was, but the only thing I had ever seen her in was when she danced during Sia’s performance of Chandelier for the Grammies (which was amazing). And I’d only seen Bill Hader in a few random SNL clips. They are just monster actors. I need to get past my reflexive avoidance of movies with SNL stars. Kick that prejudice to the curb.

    The movie had some feeling in common with Passionflower, due to the troubled natures of the characters, but I think that since twins were the subject there was far less muting of emotions. Equals can make a bigger firefight than the imbalanced parent-child relationship. I am conflicted about the ending. I expected a darker one, and also dreaded a dark one. As you said, everyone in this was a person, rounded and real. Just a first rate movie.

    Hateship Loveship is queued up for tomorrow.

    • sheila says:

      So glad you saw it!

      Yes, in my opinion, Kristen Wiig is one of the best actresses working today. She’s Madeline Kahn-level. Bridesmaids? Please! She’s awesome in it!

      And Welcome To Me – which is out right now. So excellent and creepy – I’ve been meaning to write something on it, but just haven’t had the time.

      She can do anything.

      LOVED Hateship Loveship. Watch for her spontaneous reaction after her first meeting with Guy Pearce. That is some Gena Rowlands level of acting reality.

      // They are just monster actors. //

      Totally agree!

      The lip synching scene. The build of it. Could have been so cutesy and gimmicky – instead it was so emotional.

      And Joanna Gleason. Great performance of a narcissist!!

      • mutecypher says:

        I wanted to listen to Starship’s “Nothing Can Stop Us Now” and falling down the rabbit hole I learned that they had done a version of “Carry On Wayward Son.” Which led me to an album called When Pigs Fly: Songs You Never Thought You’d Hear, because The Oak Ridge Boys also did a version of COWS (I don’t like that acronym, now that I’ve written it). And on that album was something I truly could not imagine.

        Lesley Gore singing Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.

        Back to the movie, I thought Ty Burrell was excellent, and Joanna Gleason. And Luke Wilson.

        I laughed so hard when Maggie finally joined in on the lip-syncing. That angry-annoyed look didn’t leave her face for the next 30 seconds, till she got up to dance.

      • mutecypher says:

        Hateship Loveship was very, very good. As you said, her blush when Ken calls her ‘gorgeous.’ Like Andie McDowell blushing in “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” How does someone make that happen? Her tiny smile (and blush) when Ken tells Chloe to take her chinese food and leave the key.

        Guy Pearce and the actress who played his daughter, both were excellent. Seeing him and being reminded of how good he is makes me extra-interested to see Results. Christine Lahti and Nick Nolte, also very good.

        That kiss in the mirror, and then kissing Ken just the same way… She created this unique character.

        • sheila says:

          Yes! She actually blushes. Incredible. Belief in make-believe to that degree is rare.

          Like the famous Eleanora Duse. Dissertations have been written on “Duse’s blush.” I thought I had written about it – but haven’t really. This is the only thing I found, from back in the Dark Ages of my site.

          http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=3132

          Oh gosh, yes, Christine Lahti and Nick Nolte – that relationship! So great!

          I need to see it again. Guy Pearce was excellent. A charmer. But a loser, too. Kind of similar, now that I think about it, to Results. He’s really good!

    • Jessie says:

      I need to get past my reflexive avoidance of movies with SNL stars
      Please tell me you have seen The Jerk.

  6. Jessie says:

    I never really rated Luke Wilson until I saw his incredible work with the incredible Laura Dern in the incredible Enlightened, and seeing this one really brought home for me how good he is at playing someone with a deep solid grounded depth of caring, whether the person’s a mess (as in Enlightened) or not (as here). I missed him at the end of the movie.

    Everything you say about Hader and Wiig is so true, they are just marvelous. I found the direction a little staid but the acting blew through it — their arguments are gut-clenching, horrific.

    • sheila says:

      I agree in regards to the direction – the acting is really the “thing” here.

      There’s that moment when Wiig sleeps with her scuba instructor – again – even after she told herself she wouldn’t – and she’s sitting in the car pounding the steering wheel saying “This is bull shit – bull shit bull shit -” – and why I think that moment is so extraordinary is that she looks frightened.

      Wiig goes DEEP into her characters. That’s a brave performance – she’s not afraid of ugliness.

      And I think she’s brilliant in Bridesmaids, too – she brings a sadness to the whole thing – that really struck a chord in me. All of my friends are married. One must not succumb to self-pity. One must be happy in your own life, in your own skin. But it is not always easy. The scene where Maya Rudolph tells her she’s engaged, and she starts laughing and she can’t stop – but her eyes are so sad –

      This is like Gena Rowlands type stuff. Spontaneous and almost scary – Wiig is in control but she doesn’t look at all like she’s in control. The character is in control.

      Welcome To Me. It’s out now – it didn’t get a big release – but keep your eyes peeled for it. I had high high hopes for it based on the trailer – and it’s incredible. A beautiful and scary and very very funny portrait of narcissism.

      James Marsden, too – SO FUNNY.

      • Jessie says:

        This is gonna sound a bit weird but the thing I always look at with Wiig is her mouth. Not that she has a big mouth like Anne Hathaway or Genevieve Padalecki or anything but she has a very mobile, responsive, characterful mouth. The way she holds it. I think she’s great, all those moments you describe. The actors work so well with these smaller moments (which are of course HUGE for the characters) I was almost disappointed where the script went at the end. It was tidy but it wasn’t necessary.

        James Marsden is so handsome funny! I love him. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for Welcome to Me (if only got Alan Tudyk’s reaction shot….). Awesome cast.

        What a trip you’re having through the X Files — tour of the 90s and beyond! That episode sounds hysterical.

    • sheila says:

      // how good he is at playing someone with a deep solid grounded depth of caring, //

      Yes! Not everyone can tap into that. It seems “boring” – like, just playing a nice guy? A good person? What about his dark twisty side? Can’t I play that?? Luke Wilson makes “nice” as interesting as anything else.

      Just watched a great X-Files episode where he shows up as a Texas sheriff. Like Supernatural’s Tall Tales, it is a Rashomon episode – where we see the same scene from multiple viewpoints. So in one scene, from Scully’s point of view, Luke Wilson is gorgeous and charming. In the same scene, from Mulder’s jealous point of view, Luke Wilson is an idiotic hayseed with huge buck-teeth. It’s HILARIOUS – Wison did a great job.

  7. Helena says:

    //I can’t wait to see 71 – all Belfast in 1971? Jack O’Connell? Yes, please.//

    Can’t wait til you get to see this. Thought this film was very well put together and nerve-wracking and left you to make your own judgements about the politics. Like I said, haven’t seen Starred Up (will maybe buy a bottle of hooch to calm my nerves and watch it) but what I thought was great about O’Connell’s role in it was how low key and unheroic but magnetically watchable he was, just one very damaged individual in a rotten situation dropped by morons into a hellhole. (I won’t quote the definitive line about the situation, you’ll spot it soon enough.) And it really does look like hell at several points.

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