Seeing SNL alumni Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in a movie about a pair of suicidal siblings would reasonably lead most people to expect a jet-black comedy, but Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins is so sure of its hushed, deadpan tone that it quickly establishes itself as a clear-cut drama. The laughs are few and far between, and the most welcome surprise is how capable the lead actors are at playing it straight.
As the film opens, Milo (Hader) attempts to kill himself after his boyfriend leaves him. The next scene shows his sister Maggie (Wiig) getting a call from the hospital, who inform her that her brother slashed his wrists. While she’s on the phone, Maggie is staring into a bathroom mirror and holding a fistful of pills, ready to take her own life as well.
Although they haven’t seen each other in ten years, Maggie immediately invites Milo to move into the New York home she shares with her husband Lance (Luke Wilson), a dim but decent guy, so her sibling can get his life together. Milo later makes contact with Rich (Ty Burrell), his former high-school English teacher, with whom he had an affair when he was an underage student. Meanwhile, Maggie wrestles with her own dysfunctions: namely, her fear of becoming pregnant and her penchant for taking adult-enrichment classes that end up with her sleeping with the teachers.
The Skeleton Twins is a slight, low-budget movie; it’s pretty much exactly what people mean when they use the term “indie film.” Thankfully, Johnson’s script establishes a low-key, melancholy tone, giving the picture a cohesion that is often missing from dialogue-heavy movies like this.
This is a film about sad characters, and casting a pair of first-rate clowns in the leads turned out to be a perfect choice. Hader is downright masterful as the wounded Milo. He’s not caricaturing homosexual stereotypes, even when Milo engages in them -- the character is prone to delivering catty put-downs, but Hader delivers them with a weariness that expresses the character’s depression more than his nastiness. Wiig has gotten laughs in the past by playing characters who were teetering on the brink of insanity, but while Maggie is certainly in an unhealthy headspace, she makes sure the character’s self-destructive impulses are believable without being cute. Hader and Luke Wilson, another naturally funny performer, also have charming chemistry in the scenes in which manly man Lance takes the effeminate Milo with him to clear brush and go indoor rock climbing.
The three are all fantastic together, but the most fascinating element of the movie is Milo’s relationship with Rich. Their time together forever changed both of them in ways good and bad, and finding closure in a relationship like this is unique ground to cover -- few films treat the topic of pedophilia with such sensitivity and humanist insight. Burrell and Hader are so good that it’s not unreasonable to wish that the whole picture focused on just the two of them.
The Skeleton Twins is a small story that’s full of well-written dialogue and strong, bravely muted performances, and it touches on topics most studios would never go near. It’s the kind of movie that will encourage additional talented actors to work with Craig Johnson in the future, and should open up a whole new world of career possibilities for Hader.
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- Released: 2014
- Rating: R
- Review: Seeing SNL alumni Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in a movie about a pair of suicidal siblings would reasonably lead most people to expect a jet-black comedy, but Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins is so sure of its hushed, deadpan tone that it quickly establi… (more)