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Review: The Skeleton Twins

October 15, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Skeleton Twins Poster

At the beginning of The Skeleton Twins, we watch as failed actor Milo (Bill Hader) drops a picture of his boyfriend into his fish tank, turns up the volume on his stereo and lies down in the bathtub.  The water slowly turns red with the blood of his suicide attempt.

When his estranged twin sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig) gets the call, she is contemplating swallowing the fistful of pills in her own hand, but instead goes to meet her brother at the hospital.  There is painful irony to the fact that his failed attempt to take his own life has potentially just saved hers, forcing them to see each other for the first time in ten years.

Milo goes to stay with Maggie, who never left the town where they grew up and is stuck in a dead end marriage to Lance (Luke Wilson), the sort of well meaning but overbearing and almost annoyingly nice guy whose needs for a happy life don’t go very deep.

Lance desperately wants to start a family, and has probably been dreaming about having kids since he was one himself, but children aren’t in Maggie’s life plan, putting further strain on their crumbling relationship.  Milo takes the opportunity to track down his former English teacher Rich Levitt (Ty Burrell), who left him confused after becoming inappropriately involved back in high school.

Milo and Maggie are both depressed, but they are depressed in the way that real people are as they go about their quiet lives.  They aren’t walking around constantly brooding and sullen, and the often wacky sense of humour that they share is still very much intact, finding time to laugh and joke with each other just like they always have.  But they go about their lives with a quiet desperation, seeking happiness that has been eluding them since high school when their beloved father died, and instead waiting for the next wave of unbearable melancholia to hit them.

I’ve always been fascinated by watching comedic actors do drama.  I think there is an inherent honesty and truth to a lot of humour that lends itself well to being played as drama, and some of the finest sequences in The Skeleton Twins effortlessly walk this tightrope.  A scene at the dentist’s office where laughing gas is inhaled and secrets are revealed immediately springs to mind, as does a night out on Halloween where even the over the top costumes can’t mask the heartfelt truth of their reconnection.  An impromptu dance to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” makes us simultaneously smile and tear up, a perfectly handled sequence that seems destined to become iconic.

Bill Hader has never been better, imbuing so much depth into this character that in the wrong hands could have just been another “tragic gay cliché.”  It’s a powerful turn that draws us into his pain.  Kristen Wiig also delivers one of her finest performances, portraying a broken woman trying desperately to hold herself together for both her brother and husband.  The two have a natural and very believable chemistry as brother and sister, easily and authentically falling into the sort of shorthand that real siblings share, to deliver a pair of deeply affective and nuanced performances that complement each other quite nicely.

Although some viewers will see the actors on the poster and come expecting comedy, and there are some delightful moments of levity, The Skeleton Twins is in fact a quiet film that cuts deep.  This is a touching and sometimes heartbreakingly believable human drama that rings true every step of the way, and the emotions of this very good little film linger long after the credits roll.

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