The Skeleton Twins

Seeya later

skeletonThe Skeleton Twins is a film you watch the first time in order to make sure that Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader) are going to be okay.  You watch it subsequent times just to hang out with them.

The twins have not spoken in ten years, which makes it all the more difficult when Maggie, who is about to kill herself by swallowing a handful of pills, receives a phone call from a faraway hospital and learns that Milo has survived his own suicide attempt, which he describes to her, when they finally meet, as “just something stupid I did” and blames it on an alcohol binge.  He then moves in with Maggie and her husband, Lance (Luke Wilson) in New York City, since he has no connections in LA (aside from his goldfish), and re-familiarizes himself with the landscape.  He meets up with Rich (Ty Burrell), an old friend who suggests that Milo is “out of [his] mind” to approach him at work.  Maggie, married to a man with whom she has next to nothing in common, is not happy, which is obvious enough to her twin (and not because of “twin magic” that often happens in movies of this type: anyone can see the lack of compatibility, and the audience, unlike Milo, holds the advantage of having seen Maggie’s tearful almost-suicide earlier).  Milo is all the more surprised, then, when Maggie and Lance reveal that they are trying to get pregnant (Lance, sounding like a grade-schooler struggling to remember something everyone else knows, reminds us that saying “we” makes it not sexist), and frustrated to learn that Maggie is actively subverting her own attempts to become pregnant by taking birth control medication, which she hides in a basket with butterfly soaps (i.e. a place where a lovably dense lumberjack like Lance would never look).

Milo, however, has little room to judge.  It is gradually revealed that Rich, many years Milo’s senior, was once Milo’s high school teacher, and an affair occurred between them when Milo was fifteen years old.  Feeling lonely and outcast due to his struggles with sexuality, Milo cherished their time together, ignoring the fact that Rich was (at least in the eyes of everyone who knew about it, including the law) a sexual predator.  Maggie exposed the affair, costing Rich his teaching position.  Now, unbeknownst to Maggie (but knownst to us!), the affair has begun anew.

As soon as the first conversation happens, it’s difficult to imagine anyone but Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, each known for their comedic chops, playing these very straight roles (not that the film is without laughs – you wouldn’t put Bob Dylan in a movie without letting him sing something).

Much of the film’s narrative movement, if not all of it, involves the twins trying to figure out where to go from where they are, or at least trying to get some sort of footing before they give it serious thought.  Lance hires Milo to help him clear brush off a trail, and the two bond, despite Lance’s innocent ignorance of “alternative” culture and lack of experience with gay men.  Maggie, adding to the pile of secrets, begins a compulsive sexual affair with her scuba instructor (the film’s obligatory Spiteful Sleaze), and spends quite a bit of effort trying to end it – in fact, a scene in a public restroom, wherein Maggie tells the man that she is ending the affair, just before he attacks her with his lips and hands, brings up some very timely questions about consent vs. coercion.

All of these secrets and background details come to light as naturally as they can: not through shameless exposition, but through conversations between people who need to say a certain something at a certain time, and it’s usually during an argument (the time that we all use to throw past transgressions into our loved ones’ faces, sadly).  When things look great between the twins, another wound reopens, again and again until Chekhov’s Handful of Pills pops up in Act III (and then a bit of the “twin magic” comes in, but it actually makes sense in context).

Maggie and Milo are on their own.  In some ways, they’ve always been.  Their faceless father, shown in flashbacks wearing a Halloween mask, took his own life, and their mother, suffice it to say, was not much of a mother.  The phrase “skeleton twins” is never spoken; it’s an inside metaphor only known to the camera lens and the audience: in the childhood scenes, they each have an identical skeleton toy that they’ve both kept as keepsakes in adulthood, but they’re also both full of secrets (figurative skeletons in the closet) and both constantly near death (there are three suicide attempts in the film).  We begin to think that maybe the two of them could change things if they could look at their lives objectively, the way we’re looking at them.  But their chronicle, not out of step with traditional family drama, emerges from a massive pool of failure and defeat with a victory, and in the film’s final shots, we remember how life’s minutiae, including the childlike habit of smacking one’s lips together like a fish, say so, so much.

The Skeleton Twins (2014); written and directed by Craig Johnson; starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader.

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