The big news about "The Skeleton Twins" is that director/co-writer Craig Johnson has guided two comic actors, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, into giving fine dramatic performances. They play self-destructive siblings, and while the film will strike a deep, true chord in anyone who has a brother or sister, I think you've also got to be a certain age to really relate. The theme is disappointment about where you ended up in life. Actually the pronounced theme is even darker: suicide, to which their father succumbed. (We never see his face: when they remember him, he is always wearing a Halloween mask, a skull.)
The jaundiced view of family is well-trodden ground for a story, perhaps, but it must be retold for every generation, and this time it is from the point of view of, broadly speaking, my generation. Wiig is my age, give or take a couple of years (well, take, to be fair to her). Let's just say early 40s. Hader is younger, but not so young that he, too, was not forged by that cataclysmic crucible: an 80s childhood.
Hader plays Milo, a gay man who moved to LA with dreams of becoming an actor. As the film begins he lies back in a bathtub, distraught. Red plumes blossom in the water, swirling up from the bottom of the frame. Wiig plays Milo's sister Maggie, who gets the call about Milo's suicide attempt just as she herself is about to swallow a lethal dose of pills. Flying to LA to be by his bedside, she offers to put him up for a while. As the siblings pull back into their hometown of Nyack, New York and the valley spreads out below them, Maggie watches Milo as he gazes out the car window, surprised to find himself alive, silently regarding the beauty of fall.
Maggie is unhappily married to Lance (a perfectly cast Luke Wilson). He is the wrong man for her. He is sweet, kind, good-natured, patient...in other words, exactly the wrong man for her. She's dishonest to him and, frankly, nasty, sleeping with her scuba instructor, allowing Lance to believe, excitedly, that they are trying to have kids when she is in fact secretly taking birth control.
Milo and Maggie, co-conspirators as children, have become strangers, haven't spoken in 10 years. I will not give away the reason for this, but I will say that the film is wise in its handling of the hushed-up baggage these adult siblings carry, the unhealed rift caused by a teenage crisis when one sibling perceived the other to be headed for disaster with a bad influence from whom they thought the other needed to be saved, but which the other did not understand to be a crisis, is in fact still bitter about having been "saved," about the intrusion into a matter which the other may have only dimly understood. (I would only add that the film takes a risk by suggesting that a certain type of taboo relationship, while it may be inherently exploitative, is not always perceived as injurious by the victim.)
Milo has an odd encounter with an older man, Rich (Ty Burrell in a nicely wistful performance), his former English teacher, whom we first see working at a bookstore. Rich's face registers a mixture of horror and anger upon seeing Milo, whose own nervousness reads as some mixture of shame and crush. Rich soon cautiously warms up. They go out to dinner. The subject turns to "Moby Dick," and we can see that Rich must have at one time been quite a good teacher. In a non-pedantic way, he tries to excite his former student, who can't engage with the book, talking about how funny and just flat-out "weird" the writing is.
The title of the movie refers to the matching skeleton tattoos on the siblings' shoulders, and the film has a motif of masks and Halloween, an undercurrent of Day of the Dead iconography, which feels right for a film about two people who are in a sense back from the dead, hovering between this world and the next, not sure which they prefer. The movie has a lyrical treatment of memory, of playing in the dressing-up box as children, of a doll sinking to the bottom of a pool, rescued and brought back to the surface by Milo.
Johnson tells much of "The Skeleton Twins" in two-shots and closeups, which Ingmar Bergman felt constitute the special marvel of film. "They give you the eyes, the skin, the mouth, and that's fascinating," he said. "The human face is the most fascinating subject possible for the camera." In the wrinkles in Kristen Wiig's face we see written the passage of time and life's disappointments. To further illustrate Bergman's point, check out that already celebrated scene in which Milo and Maggie airband to Starship's hair-raising if emblematic 80s jam "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." In just one brief scene, Maggie and Milo's faces tell us everything we need to know about their bond, as much as a novel.
A movie likes this all comes down to glances and words. And so the question becomes, do they ring true? Hader gives a remarkably pitch-perfect, empathetic portrayal of a gay man. Milo always comes off as a three-dimensional human being and not a cliche, even when he's acting out cliches. As Maggie, Wiig performs with a lot of heart and gives us an angry, empty, flat, pinched woman.
As this movie sees it, kids are a nightmare, and parents let you down. (In the scene where their self-absorbed mother (Joanna Gleason) drops by, she is a portrait in denial, encumbered by New Age flummery.) In fact, according to this movie, all interpersonal relationships are really just an exercise in dissembling. Except for one: the one you have with your brother or sister. With them, you get real. This is conveyed in an extended scene that takes place after-hours in the dentist’s office where Maggie works as a hygienist, where they get silly on nitrous oxide and then confide in each other. The scene finds the sweet spot for brother/sister movies: the way we laugh so as not to cry. In such moments both my laughter and my tears were real. You may put "The Skeleton Twins" on the shelf next to "The Savages" and "You Can Count On Me," films about how we siblings take turns pulling each other up from the bottom of the pool.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)