The Skeleton Twins is the kind of film which suffers because I cannot totally judge it in a vacuum. On its own, it would still be a flawed film, but in the greater context of modern cinema, it stands as yet another indie comedy-drama about dysfunctional middle-class characters, played by hitherto largely comedic actors, who go through their quotidian crises before something like a happy ending. Here, though, the dysfunctions are poorly explored, the crises seem contrived, and the sort-of-happy ending leaves more than a few story threads dangling. The acting (and, to my surprise, the direction) is good enough to make it a *** film, but the script lets it down.
Spoilers; TW suicide, statutory rape, mental illness.
Milo (Bill Hader) attempts suicide, and his semi-estranged twin sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig) encourages him to return to their hometown in upstate New York to recuperate. He reluctantly does so, though Maggie’s husband Lance (Luke Wilson) welcomes him warmly, even recruiting him to help with his work for the parks department. Milo, meanwhile, reconnects with Rich (Ty Burrell), his high school English teacher who was also his first love, and who now lives a closeted life. Maggie, we learn, is unsatisfied in her marriage and has repeatedly slept with other men–at present, with her scuba instructor (Boyd Holbrook).
Other tensions arise in the form of their cavalier, absentee mother (Joanna Gleeson), the memory of their late father, who killed himself, Milo’s alcoholism, and Milo’s conflicting feelings about Rich.
My frustration with The Skeleton Twins is largely based in its failure to really explore either why its characters are so profoundly troubled or why they engage in their present self-destructive behavior. Yes, their mother seems distant and unsupportive, and we know their father killed himself (though we’re never given a hint as to why), while we can guess that Milo was bullied for his homosexuality…but beyond that, we’re given annoyingly little real insight into their psyches. Milo discusses how his life has not panned out, how he set out to be an actor in L.A. and now waits tables at a tacky restaurant, but does that explain his binge drinking or his suicidal tendencies (at one point, he climbs out onto a ledge, but is apprehended before anything happens)?
For that matter, the small(ish?) town where the film takes place has a bar where Milo goes in search of men, and discovers it’s the bar’s “dyke night”–I’m no expert on small-town New York, but any town of that size which has an established gay bar would seem to be a comparatively supportive environment. Of course, Milo’s teenage affair with Rich–by any legal standards an act of rape–may have played its part in his troubles, and when he rekindles his affair with Rich, later realizing that he must end it for his own good, it’d be great to have some idea of what he’s thinking. But we get very little.
Hader’s performance, however, gives the role all he’s got. His wounded smirk, his defensive sense of humor, his blossoming when in drag…he brings the role as much to life as anyone could, and earns both laughs and pathos–and evokes flamboyance without becoming campy. It’s really quite a good performance, and while he probably won’t get a nomination from me (just because the competition is so intense), I wouldn’t object to, say, a Golden Globe nod.
But if Milo is an underexplored character, Maggie is doubly so. We’re told off-handedly that before Rich she tended to date unpleasant men, and we might infer that her father’s suicide and her brother’s own troubles left their scars, but why she cheats on her loving, doting husband is a question the film never really tries to answer (and why she would cheat on Luke Wilson with Boyd Holbrook, at least in this film, is a question I doubt any film could). She’s clearly unhappy with herself, but we never get a real look inside her, and the film is weakened by it.
And at the end, she admits her infidelity to Lance, who despairingly goes outside…and is not seen again for the remainder of the film. Do they separate? Do they try and work things out? Who knows. Maggie, after confronting Milo (who had dropped hints to Lance which led to her ultimate confession), tries to commit suicide herself, but is saved by Milo, and the film ends with them setting up a new goldfish tank (long story) and smiling. (Again, I’d really like to know what happened with Lance, but the movie doesn’t seem to care.)
Wiig does a solid job as well, but the limitations of the writing hamper her somewhat, and she ultimately spends most of the film looking glum. She and Hader have good chemistry, though, and the moments where Milo and Maggie relax and are just brother and sister are some of her (and the film’s) best.
Wilson is fine; Lance seems to be a simple, unpretentious sort, and Wilson puts that across well, while giving just a hint that Lance may have complex frustrations he chooses to suppress. He remains thoroughly likable, which makes the lack of resolution for his character all the more frustrating. Burrell is quite strong as well, showing the depths of Rich’s self-denial (and deep-buried self-disgust). Holbrook is fine, but his character is essentially there to be a seducer. Gleason is good in her brief appearance.
Craig Johnson’s direction is actually fairly strong, the sense of small-town life and turbulent lives being well-evoked, and Reed Morano’s cinematography helps with that. It’s a well-made film, which makes the lapses in the script (which Johnson co-wrote with Mark Heyman) all the more frustrating. I feel like the material might have made a better novel, though that would have deprived us of the fine performances. But it would have perhaps given us the psychological insight I crave.
I also can’t quite tell if this is the kind of film which is criticizing or advocating small-town life. It seems like both at times, but maybe that wasn’t on the filmmakers’ agenda. As a small-towner myself, I am perhaps unusually sensitive to perceived snobbery. (Oh, and by the way, the title comes from a pair of toy Dia de Muertos skeletons Milo and Maggie’s father gave them as kids. So there’s that.)
In real life, prying into the troubles of others isn’t a terribly good idea. But when dealing with fictional characters, it’s practically a necessity. So when a film seems to say that its characters are fucked up because they’re fucked up, it feels unsatisfying. The Skeleton Twins has some lovely moments, and the cast do their all with it. So while I’m subjectively frustrated by it, objectively, I recognize it is a solid film. But it is not a great one.