The Skeleton Twins (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Skeleton Twins (2014)

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Siblings Milo and Maggie shared in a terrible event years ago and rarely talk to each other.  Now, with both feeling that life is no longer worth living, a rare moment of action brings the two back together.  Will they reconcile their pain with their past, or is it all too much to bear?  Craig Johnson writes and directs The Skeleton Twins, starring Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.

We made it to the endThe Skeleton Twins feels familiar.  Protagonists in their late 20's to early 30's suffer a loss that forces them to return home and face the skeletons of their past.  It's the sort of film that almost writes itself and has been a small-budget staple for decades.  Mix some pop hits, throw in a good lead or two, maybe some introspection and - voilà - festival circuit success.

That old dramatic formula is durable for a reason.  It allows each generation to take a spin on what they feel was important via culture, and spin a yarn out from it.  What The Skeleton Twins reminds us is that the formula is sometimes not for cultural self-reflection, but exorcism.  By burying pain in genre tropes we can hope for something atypical to come out of the mess.

The Skeleton Twins is not entirely atypical, but it's successful on its own painful terms.  Writer / director Craig Johnson does not operate in broad emotions but instead paints his film with subtlety.  He allows a shared history between Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig) to suggest the trauma that they are both still trying to cope with.  They're people who still haven't learned how to speak to each other without ripping open a new wound.  Conversation is a delicate dance between these two siblings, one that The Skeleton Twins suggests they may never be good at.

Like many comedians turned dramatic performers, Bill Hader is so good in The Skeleton Twins that I hope he abandons comedy to focus on drama for just a couple of films. I want to see what else he's capable of.

Like many comedians turned dramatic performers, Bill Hader is so good in The Skeleton Twins that I hope he abandons comedy to focus on drama for just a couple of films. I want to see what else he's capable of.

Of the two, I enjoyed Milo's character arc the best.  Most dramas have their players return home as a success and having to deal with the life they once had.  Milo's problem is that he peaked in high school and never found a way to put his theatrical talents to use.  I like the suggestion that Milo may never have been that talented, that there's a reason he's stuck in a low-paying cycle of menial jobs and bad roles.  We hear many times, both through Johnson and Mark Heyman's screenplay with Hader's awkward delivery, just how bad a liar he is.  Milo's performance of himself as a success is the greatest lie, and one that no one is convinced by.

Hader is excellent in this role as a man who never found complete comfort with himself and is at his best only when he's dressing up for others.  His awkward volume control and unsubtle way of expressing his desires make him an easy target for emotional manipulation.  This is something that Wiig, as Maggie, brings to ruthless focus a few times in the film.  She has no problem being honest with him but when she asks the same of him she lashes back with quick insights that only those closest to him would know.  Johnson and Heyman's screenplay brings new life to the dramatic formula because we can never tell if Milo and Maggie's scenes are going to end in comfort or disaster.

The problem is that the screenplay is two parts fresh twist and one part familiar blandness.  Wiig is unfortunately saddled with a rote character who once imagined great things for herself but settled into being a housewife.  It's a tough character to begin with and it doesn't help that Wiig isn't skilled enough to elevate the role.  She settles into the same glazed over look that so many dramatic housewives before her have gotten and rarely leaves it.  There are signs of hope for future roles as she does very well in scenes involving Maggie's self-disgust, but often leaves the impression that she's following Hader's lead as much as possible.

Luke Wilson is an amiable and welcome presence in the otherwise dire lives that form the center of The Skeleton Twins.

Luke Wilson is an amiable and welcome presence in the otherwise dire lives that form the center of The Skeleton Twins.

Johnson does have some fun playing with the history of this kind of drama and casts Luke Wilson as Maggie's husband Lance.  It was about thirteen years ago now that Wilson brought weight to his role as the suicidal hopeless dreamer Richie Tenenbaum, a close cousin to this film's protagonists.  Wilson is an unexpected delight in this role as he tries to play Lance like a dopey oracle, and has a fun way of letting his lines trail off while sharing homespun wisdom with Milo.  He's a breath of positivity in the otherwise self-induced hell that Milo and Maggie have settled into.

Amidst all the drama The Skeleton Twins finds a good visual motif via cinematographer Reed Morano for its wayward protagonists.  The opening moments of the film are viewed through a smoky haze as Milo and Maggie try to figure out what to do with themselves.  It sharpens as the two dig into each other, replacing their meandering fog with crisp shots of the two playing and fighting.  My favorite moment in the film features the pair dancing as lens flare from two mingling lights cut their caressing bodies apart.  They're only strong together, but will always be separated by that one sliver of pain that they share.

As familiar as The Skeleton Twins feels it avoids any easy answers to their dilemma.  Milo and Maggie shared trauma is the one thing that binds them to each other and a source of great pain.  What we watch in The Skeleton Key is one chapter of their continued survival.  Its success is that we're left wondering what the next chapter will be.

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Tail - The Skeleton TwinsThe Skeleton Twins (2014)

Directed by Craig Johnson.
Screenplay written by Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman.
Starring Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, and Luke Wilson.

Posted by Andrew

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