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.
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.
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.
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.
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.