IFFBoston Review: ‘Skeleton Twins’


Film: Skeleton Twins
Directed by: Craig Johnson
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader

Suicide is a tricky subject to handle on screen, especially in a story where you plan to involve elements of pitch black comedy, but Craig Johnson has successfully combined the two in his new and heartbreakingly hilarious film.

Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader) are a pair of thirty-something twins who have not talked in a decade, but coincidentally decide to take their own lives on the same fall day. Before Maggie can go through with her plan, however, she receives a call from Los Angeles informing her that Milo has been taken to the emergency room. She’s not sure why she does it, but something compels her to put down the pills she has been staring at for the past few minutes and book a flight to see her sibling in need.

There are cold opens in films and then there is the way Skeleton Twins chooses to begin. The idea of seeing two former SNL stars contemplate (let alone have one attempt) suicide is a very somber way to start a story, but as soon as Maggie chooses to visit her brother instead of following in his steps there is a subtle lining of hope to the whole affair that means more than any big joke opening ever could. You instantly feel for both Maggie and Milo, even though the various problems and neurosis responsible for causing them to reach the point where we first meet them has yet to be revealed.

It takes a while for Milo to warm up to idea of his sister walking back into his life, let alone asking him to move in with her while he recovers, and Johnson captures this awkward emotional distance with wonderfully framed shots that place the pair on opposite sides of the screen. If they do happen to be close, their eyes never meet. At least, not at first.

Once the film settles into the rural New York town that Maggie calls home (and where the twins grew up), Skeleton Twins begins to slowly peel back the numerous layers of its leads to reveal a plethora of issues that have driven each into their own personal hell. Maggie is stuck in an unfulfilling marriage to a guy who is seemingly perfect for everyone except her (played by Luke Wilson in one of his funniest roles to date), while Milo is still trying to get over a confusing relationship he shared with an older person while in high school. On top of this, both realize their predicaments are the result of their own cowardice, which only makes them hate themselves more while strengthening the newly reformed bond they share.

It’s extremely clear to anyone following the lives of Maggie and Milo that the answer to the majority of their problems begins with resolving the issues between them, but it takes things coming together and falling apart all over again for the characters to realize it themselves. Maggie is too fixated on events from a decade ago to understand her own situation or the fact her brother has become a man capable of making his own decisions and Milo cannot help feeling the need to prove to his sister he has things together when he knows in his heart he is as lost as he has ever been. They think they’re so smooth, but Maggie and Milo see right through one another.

The magic of Skeleton Twins begins with the pitch perfect chemistry between its leads. Hader and Wiig are both a bit out of their element in this setting, but they hold their own in dramatic moments as much as those where comedy comes into play, which is fast and often if I am being completely honest. One scene in particular, where Milo is attempting to cheer up his sister by lip syncing and dancing to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Hold Us Down,” may be one of the best sequences you see onscreen all year. It’s hilarious in premise alone, but becomes exponentially more funny thanks to earnest delivery of Hader and Wiig. When Maggie finally comes around, long after the first verse and chorus had finished, Wiig approaches the moment with a sly wrinkle of happiness in the corner of her mouth that feels as memorable as any moment from Bridesmaids or her other work.

As much as people should (and will) praise Wiig for this performance, the real star is almost certainly Bill Hader. Much like Will Forte did with Nebraska, Hader steps just far enough outside his element with this film to prove he is capable of far more than his days on SNL may have lead you to believe. He commands the screen in essentially every sequence, even when surrounded by one of the brightest supporting casts in recent memory. So much so, in fact, that by the time the third act begins winding down it becomes incredibly evident it is Milo who holds their viewers’ heart in his hands. You cheer for him. You weep for him. You want more of him.

Given the strong way Craig Johnson presented the beginning phases of depression in True Adolescents it will perhaps come as a surprise that those skills once again do wonders with Skeleton Twins. Where his previous film followed one character’s journey to self-realization, this work allows him to tell the story of two people while also diving into their incredibly personal shared connection and how that impacts their relationships with the world around them. It’s not a sequel in theme or idea by any means, but it proves Johnson has an even more robust pallet for creating stimulating dramatic story lines than he what he has shown in the past.

At the risk of making a bold declaration before the summer movie season officially begins, Skeleton Twins is guaranteed to be one of the best films you see this year. The performances are strong, the script is heavy-yet-hilarious, and the cinematography subtlety compliments the whole thing without ever distracting you from the story at hand. If this movie does not win you over you might not have a pulse. Seek help.

Score: A

Written by: James Shotwell

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the founder of Under The Gun Review. He loves writing about music and movies almost as much as he loves his two fat cats. He's also the co-founder of Antique Records and the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. You should probably follow him on Twitter.

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