Wow, television stars are really breaking out onto the big screen scene this year. And with Jenny Slate already having delivered an honest performance in Obvious Child, here we have two other Saturday Night Live cast members amazing the audience with the extent of their talent. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig prove themselves to be promising actors capable of many subtleties in stark contrast to their animated SNL characters in this touching dark comedy. The bond between siblings is always something special, and intriguing at the same time. The Skeleton Twins plays this bond to a very strong mental connection through the depravity of both the brother and sister, Milo and Maggie who depend on each other more than they can imagine.
The film begins with Milo, who has been recently dumped by his boyfriend, slitting his throat to some loud upbeat music and waiting for his death as the blood fills his tub. Maggie is attempting suicide herself minus the drama, with a handful of pills, which is when she gets the call that her brother is in the hospital. She rushes to his help, and we find out they haven’t talked for 10 years and there is this strange tension between them, where Milo asks Maggie to leave and not make a fuss. Finally he ends up tagging along with her to New York anyway; to live with her and her enthusiastic, far more normal husband Lance. Milo finds Lance a very strange partner for Maggie, who he knows to be as deranged as he is, not exactly the textbook normal that Lance is, talking about babies and scuba-diving. From then on, we see both Milo and Maggie through the eyes of the other, and through strangely humorous conversations, going over the past ten years. Maggie is trying very hard to be what her husband is, a normal woman capable of being a mother and doing groceries, while Milo sets off to hunt down his first love, Rich, who is constantly trying to shrug off that history, and drive him out of his new life.
What we can be sure of right off the bat, from the first image of the titular ‘skeleton twins’ dolls is that Maggie and Milo are depraved and definitely not normal. They are both depressed human beings who get off on small joys and immediately find themselves getting slapped in the face. We can see this discordance both when Milo is tripping on Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ only to get the door slammed in his face by Rich, and when Maggie is doing the same, going shopping only to return to a husband who has discovered her pregnancy pills. The strange creatures the twins are is often also reflected in the humour they share, the wry, off-handed comments at their own twisted states, something that not everyone can get a hold of. There is a true connection between Maggie and Milo, which others find hard to comprehend, but it is clear in their faces that they are alive only when with each other. A truly special moment in the film is when both twins get high on the nitrous at Maggie’s dental clinic and act like their fourteen year-old selves again. They are still very much the same kids they were at fourteen, when their father took the easy way out by jumping off a bridge. It is easy to see that this death has had a lasting effect on both their lives, Milo constantly trying to do the same himself, while Maggie has attached herself to a man who seems more a father than anything else, in hopes for her lost life to be regained.
Kristen Wig’s character lives in constant denial, wrapping herself in a perfect cocoon that she pretends to be a wholesome marriage, and a happy life. She strives toward the normal, trying to surround herself with normal things, treating her brother as someone she needs to look out for, when the fact is that she needs him as much as he does her. One of the most disturbing images in the movie, that of two dead fish floating around in wispy waters, as Kristen tries to shake them to life, harmonizing the feeling in both their minds, trying to kindle and keep alive something that has been long dead.
Milo is at the same time seeking out what little things make him happy and content, and at least for a while forget his worries and the crisis he is in. Having reached nowhere in his ambitious acting career, and dumped by his boyfriends, he seeks solace in his first sexual experience, in Rich, who he fully knows acted out of his boundaries in school, but now finding meaning in that relationship, depraved as it was, convincing himself that it is the one thing that makes him feel happy, that makes him feel less dead and wanting to drag a blade across his wrist again. Everyone is as sick and depraved as they are, and are just trying to hide it away, resenting that side of themselves, trying to butter up their lives, to spread glitter all over, to maintain a facade of normalcy. This struck me as I watched Rich trying to grapple with the existential crisis he seems to like so much in Moby Dick, a voice somewhere deep down telling him that he is not entirely straight when it comes to sexuality (but then again who is?) a voice that he tries daily to silence, raising his kid, trying to make it work with his girlfriend, all the while resisting the temptation to indulge in Milo again. I find similarity in Milo’s infatuation with that of Charlie’s in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Just as it was there, Milo refuses to accept that it was Rich’s crime for molesting him, and finds him endearing and himself drawn to Rich. Like Charlie, he suppresses the part of him which tells him what he doesn’t want to hear – that his first indulgence, the first person who saw him that way is not the love that he wants him to be. Instead, he blames himself for what happened, and apologizes to Rich for getting him fired and ending his career as a teacher, which Rich loved.
Luke Evans’ Lance starkly provides the contrast to the dark, weirdly funny twins, and the way he feels out of place, and outside their inside jokes bring to the surface how astray from ordinary they are, and how the only ones who can understand them, are themselves. Lance is the perfect dad, though without children, motivational, bubbly and always eager to do things and help out. This is not at all what the twins need, as they lost that part to them a long time ago, when their father decided to end his life when they were fourteen. His character also probably alludes to some repressed father issues that Maggie might have, that she is trying to fill with Lance; hoping beyond anything that such a figure that she missed out on all these years would uplift her, and bring her to fulfilment.
It is a touching tale of two people who come to realize that they themselves just like the world around them, is sick and depraved, and that they need each other to survive. It is only when they begin to understand each other, and the others around, instead of seeing them as wrecks, can they really start to support each other, and lean on each other. This was something they did when they were kids, understanding each other’s identities well, and knowing when to be there for the other. Hence, the frequent flashbacks to those days, especially of Kristen dressing up Milo, something they recaptured as adults for a single night. The very fact right at the start of the film, when Maggie was ready to swallow the pills to end her life, and the only thing that stopped her was news of her brother in the hospital. This is the sentiment that flows under the words, the laughs and the fights throughout the story. Neither can survive without the other, and though distanced for 10 years, they are still connected by an unbroken bond, which makes them rush to each other’s help in the direst of situations, forgetting all the trouble they themselves are in. In this tale pregnant with special moments, one of the best is when Milo, on seeing his sister in a very dark place, forgets his worries and decides to pick her up by lip-syncing to ‘Nobody’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, which unknown to him, does wonders for him too. This first scene is again reflected in the end, when Milo rushes to the pool to save Maggie from drowning herself, something she figures out she doesn’t want to do, at a point when she cannot stop herself. Milo and Maggie are indeed the skeleton twins, dead when apart and dancing when brushed together.
A story this close to heart and character solely rests on the performances of the people playing out the brother-sister bond, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. Needless to say, the chemistry between the two is amazing, having already worked together for quite some on Saturday Night Live and they bounce off each other’s moods pretty damn well. To see the over-pitched Stefan and the mischievous Gilly fall so easily into such heart-felt performances that while extremely real also manages to capture a different kind of comedy is wonderful. Bill Hader especially has to be noticed in this film, being a personal favourite from his days on SNL, who brings to life a broken and derailed character going through a very dark crisis in both his love-life and his career. It is interesting to see that he is able to gather laughter as both the end-of-the-spectrum exaggerated gay Stefan and as the more realistic portrayal of a homosexual character in Milo. That is not to say Wiig does not aim higher in this one, successfully playing Maggie as her true depressed self, as well as the cheerful visage she hides under with people other than her brother. Though we have seen Wiig take on such real roles before, it is a belated first for Hader, who knocks it out of the park. I especially enjoyed how his crooked smile managed to fit in as perfectly here with his constantly rejected Milo as it did with his notorious and raunchy SNL counterpart. The performance that he delivers is stunning, down to earth, and reeking of black snide humour that doesn’t deprive him of being loveable. Ty Burrell, although quite good in his own role, was not allowed enough exploration to actually call his character moving, though he does present himself starkly different from his Phil on Modern Family.
The Skeleton Twins is a moving film about two not-so-square human beings, whose very survival depends on each other, more than they allow themselves to accept. Hader as the toothy and snarky Milo, trying desperately to make others understand that he is normal and capable of being loved, is a revelation; as is Wiig with her character constantly in denial of her wreck. The ending image of Milo nudging Maggie while staring at his fat goldfish perfectly puts to screen the relationship they share, a most strange one, but at least one they alone understand. Perfectly taut and strung together, this black comedy is sure to have you laughing in hysteria with the twins, as well as moved by their crises.