It is a fact as old as time that siblings need to stick up for each other, even if they loathe each other. That’s just how it works. This, in essence, is the crux of The Skeleton Twins. It’s also what gives the film its emotional weight. And while the film doesn’t quite live up to its considerable potential — most notably, dramatic turns from two SNL stars — it is an intriguing exploration of just how cracked up our lives can get and what we do to try and cope.
From the outset of writer and director Craig Johnson’s film, it’s clear that siblings Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader) have some serious issues. After all, what else can you say when the only thing that prevents Maggie from committing suicide is her own brother’s botched suicide? Thick as thieves in their youth, the pair haven’t spoken to each other in 10 years, and they have no idea what’s going on in the other’s life. Why? For starters, their father took a swan dive off a bridge because, as Maggie wryly puts it near the film’s conclusion, “He found a way out.” Another reason? Because Maggie blew the whistle on Milo’s high school English teacher, Rich, who was having sex with him. All of this has now led to Milo being a despondent out-of-work actor in Los Angeles, while Maggie has found and married a Mr. Nice Guy named Lance (Luke Wilson) in New York state and is completely miserable. Tough doesn’t even begin to describe the lives these two are living, and it is easy to understand why they are so emotionally fragile.
Known mostly for their comedic work, both Wiig and Hader clearly relish the opportunity to play against type, and their performances are quite good. Hader imbues his Milo with a disarming amount of hopelessness, bitterness, and jadedness as he walks through life like a zombie trying to figure out when the hell something is going to go right for him. There are moments where his comedic chops shine through — like in a scene where he shows up at a gay bar on the wrong night, much to his dismay. But Hader looks, sounds, and acts like a person who is so completely at the end of his rope that the effect is unnerving.
Wiig for her part is not exactly a ray of sunshine either. She genuinely seems to loathe herself every time she does something self-destructive and acts like she wants to put her fist through a window — or her skull — every time her proverbial flesh ends up being stronger than her will. Maggie simply looks exhausted and overwhelmed by life and everything it continues to throw at her, and Wiig’s performance is strong enough that you practically beg for her fortunes to turn around every time she appears on the screen.
Under most circumstances, a film with scenes as random as some of Twins are would smack of Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman’s attempts at trying too hard to be witty. Not here. These scenes underscore how devoid of direction and purpose Maggie and Milo’s lives are, and so it makes for a nice juxtaposition. The heaviness is lightened by scenes of Maggie taking scuba diving lessons, Maggie whipping out an old dress for Milo to wear as a Halloween costume, and the siblings sharing laughing gas at the dentist’s office where Maggie works.
Similarly, there’s a nice bit of visual bookending by Johnson. The films starts with Maggie driving Milo to her home at the beginning to help him pick up the pieces of his life. When things go south for Maggie toward the end, the same setup puts Maggie and Milo in the opposite position on the opposite side of the country. The mirroring of the lives of the brother and sister does a lot to show how interchangeable their fortunes are, and how at the same time, their fates are irrevocably intertwined.
The film loses a bit of steam in the third act as certain loose ends are wrapped up a little too neatly — namely the way Milo achieves his head-clearing light-bulb moment — while others end up not having the power you would expect given the enormity of the situation and the complexity of the relationship between the characters involved, like the way Milo and his old English teacher resolve their situation. Otherwise The Skeleton Twins is a solid film.
It’s not easy to talk about something like depression and suicide, whether you are trying to make your scenes feel authentic or if you are trying to inject a bit of black humor into situations where most probably would not, but Johnson makes a strong showing here. Hader and Wiig play off each other well and give strong performances, and this story will make you stop and think about the people who matter most to you and how valuable a role they play in your life.
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