For a second feature, director Craig Johnson’s (True Adolescents) The Skeleton Twins is a bold move. This American black-comedy is more dark than comic in parts, exploring heavy themes of suicide and infidelity with sarcasm and indie charm.
The film reunites Saturday Night Live regulars and Paul co-stars Bill Hader (Superbad) and Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids) as estranged titular twins Milo and Maggie. We meet the pair as they each attempt suicide on the same day. It’s like twin telepathy on steroids.
Milo, who is a gay, depressed, and struggling actor in Los Angeles, slits his wrists in the bath. The scene makes for confronting viewing, but thankfully the slashing is done just out of frame. All you see is the bathwater seep blood red – an opening scene both brutal and beautiful. What pulls him from the brink? A neighbour who complains that Milo’s stereo is too loud and goes over to his apartment to shut him up.
Maggie’s temptation to take her own life is not quite as confronting. Cupping a handful of pills, she’s interrupted by a phone call telling her of her brother’s hospitalisation, snapping her out of her self-pity. After ten years of estrangement, Maggie and Milo are suddenly throw together to sort out their issues and try to heal each other.
Milo moves in with Maggie and her affable husband Lance (Luke Wilson; The Royal Tenenbaums) in their childhood hometown of New York. It seems the siblings are constantly drawn to danger. Within days of settling back into a type of normality, they are forging another disastrous path in life, with Milo seeking out his former teacher and beau Rich (Ty Burrell; Modern Family) and Maggie beginning a sloppy affair with her scuba-diving instructor Billy (Gone Girl’s Boyd Holbrook doing one of the shittiest Australian accents ever heard on screen!).
The character of Rich is a difficult one. He was once Milo’s high school teacher – a man in a position of trust – but the two began a romantic relationship that not only went against Rich’s preferred sexual orientation, but also against the law. For Milo, the sexual experience cemented his sexuality and was meaningful, but to Rich, it was a glitch in his otherwise squeaky-clean career reputation. The motivation behind Milo wanting to re-connect with Rich is unclear, but what is clear is that Rich is still as torn as he was back then as to his feelings towards his ex-pupil.
In the same vein as Little Miss Sunshine and The Savages, the razor-sharp wit of the script is the heart of the film. The dinner sequence with Maggie, Milo and Lance has some fantastic one-liners as Milo grapples with Lance’s almost smothering hospitality and curiosity. Lance and Maggie claim to be trying for a baby (though she claimed to Milo that she never wanted kids), and when Milo jokes that he “can’t wait to be the creepy, gay uncle” Lance awkwardly and enthusiastically replies “you’re hired!”, as if he agrees that Milo is creepy.
On the surface, the twins are unlikable film leads. Milo is bitchy, self-absorbed and sarcastic, and Maggie is flighty and secretive. They’re kindred spirits in this sense, traumatised still by their suicidal father and cold, absent mother Judy (Joanna Gleason; Boogie Nights).
The performances are solid. Wiig sulks her way through much of Maggie’s early encounters, bringing both believability and ordinariness to the complex role. Her humour is understated, as the battles raging in Maggie’s head lend themselves to a more “straight” character role. Lance is the only truly loveable character in The Skeleton Twins. Sure, he may be a sickly-sweet, puppy-dog dopey alpha male, but he’s practically perfect in every way and it’s in him being a fool for Maggie that makes the audience so frustrated she can’t appreciate what a catch he is.
The best scene without a doubt is the lip-sync, where Milo endeavours to cheer Maggie up by cranking up Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’. He prowls around the living room, miming every single word, waiting for Maggie to crack and join in. Of course, she eventually does. Another great example of sibling bonding is when Maggie dresses Milo up in drag for a night out on the (small) town for Halloween festivities.
The film is shot in muted, suburbia-bland colours; mundane whites, greys, blues and yellows that are nostalgic in their hazy brightness and the way that they never promise a happy ending. Towards the end Maggie has another attempt to take her life, this time tying herself down with weights and jumping into the scuba diving pool. Having another awful suicide attempt happen so close to the film’s conclusion threatens to leave the audience with an open-ender, but it’s refreshing to see a director echo the truth so closely.
Life usually doesn’t have happy endings, and with a theme as heavy and dark as suicide the basis for the film, it would be an injustice to audiences to have the problem so easily fixed. The film is a sharp but sceptical look at the old cliché that blood is thicker than water. In The Skeleton Twins, there’s plenty of both.