The pain of sudden family tragedy cuts deep and in Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins the cuts go deep enough to bring two siblings back together after 10 years. Many films have portrayed brother-sister relationships as lovingly dysfunctional, mostly for the purpose of comedy. Skeleton Twins portrays Milo and Maggie, played by Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig respectively, as broken siblings only with happy childhood memories together. And that’s okay.
Openly gay Milo has been living in Los Angeles trying to make his way as an actor and Maggie never left upstate New York, working in a dentist’s office and married to the upbeat but boring Lance (Owen Wilson). On the same day, the twins escape death as they both attempt suicide with Milo ending up in the hospital and Maggie taking him into her home. Despite being apart for an entire decade, both of them still retain what connected them so well as children, while also both slowly and aggressively falling apart. Keeping crumbling emotions bottled up must run in the family as their father committed suicide when they were young and they ponder over this event’s effects throughout the movie.
The film follows them as they try to repair themselves and each other by reconnecting with images of their youth. This subject matter has served as the plot for many clichéd movies, but Nathan Larson’s script presents these clichés as realistic mechanisms for Milo and Maggie’s road to recovery. The most impressive example is their shared sense of humor. Several scenes have little purpose except to show how the two make each other laugh. Their thought-out deadpan characters combined with their natural chemistry and improvisation background, set their relationship apart from other brother-sister movies, during certain scenes where they don’t break into laughter despite sarcastic statements. One scene shows Milo getting angry with Maggie for potentially spoiling the end of Marley and Me which he had almost finished. He throws the book aside and she apologizes, but Milo turns back to her and says, “I know what happens…It’s the book where the dog dies. Everyone knows that.” While their comedic cynicism keeps the two of them connected like only family can, it also leads them farther down the path to destruction.
Like her character in Bridesmaids, Kristin Wiig’s character is the portrait of a perpetually sad woman unwilling to admit she’s falling apart for other people’s happiness. However it’s more damaging here than it is funny and she’s angry with herself more so than with others. She values the feelings of others more so than her feelings in a too matter-of-fact manner. She doesn’t ask how to please them, she just does. No matter how damaging it may be. And little by little, the consequences slip out. She sleeps with her scuba instructor in a moment of weakness, feeling undeniably unsatisfied with her husband who is head over heels in love with her. These snaps in judgment, in all their possible forms, ultimately lead to her destructive actions.
Those most familiar with Bill Hader from SNL will be surprised to see this realistic character from him. His portrayal of Milo captures the bitterness embedded in many members of the LGBT community due to judgment and oppression. His constant criticism of everything around him leaves him unable to live with his own thoughts as his attempt at suicide that begins the movie is implied to come after a breakup. Additionally, his emotions come to a boil each time he gets drunk, a time when anyone’s true thoughts come to the surface. Other than the comedic banter with his sister, the only time he shows excitement is when he sees his ex-lover Rich (Ty Burrell) who was his English teacher when Milo was 15 years old. The thought of reuniting with a past and problematic lover seems to be the only thing keeping him uplifted during his visit home.
This quiet gem of a movie may have initially served as a reel for Wiig and Hader’s talents toward heavy material, but it’s one that shouldn’t be forgotten when award season comes around. While a few of the heavier plot points come from left field for a possible tug at our hearts or a gasp, the actors handle them with grace and vulnerability, blending them in to the story as character development. Very little is resolved at the end of the film. In fact, they may be back where they started with the roles reversed. But in the least cliché way possible, all they need is each other. “Nothing’s gonna stop [them] now.”