[Note: This is a re-post of my The Skeleton Twins review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release this weekend.]
Comedic actors moving into dramatic territory is not a new concept. Many make the transition with ease, while some have trouble crossing over or getting audiences to buy into them doing “serious” things. SNL veterans Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig make a striking move to drama with excellent results in The Skeleton Twins, a darkly comic drama from director Craig Johnson. This isn’t a “look how serious I can be” performance from Hader or Wiig; the film does have some very funny moments, but the two bring a formidable amount of weight to the characters, with Hader in particular turning in a stellar performance as one half of the troubled sibling pair.
The Skeleton Twins opens with the attempted suicide of Milo Dean (Hader), possibly due to a breakup with his boyfriend, followed swiftly by the almost attempted suicide of sister Maggie Dean (Wiig). Maggie’s deadly act is interrupted by a phone call informing her of her brother’s situation, and soon thereafter she sets out to visit him in the hospital. Milo and Maggie have not spoken for a decade, but when they do rekindle it’s easy to see that they once shared an intimate bond. Maggie invites Milo to come stay with her in New York City, and he becomes the houseguest of Maggie and her husband Lance (Luke Wilson).
Lance is summed up perfectly by an early comment from Milo, who likens to him “a big Labrador retriever,” and we soon learn that some of Milo and Maggie’s turmoil may have been set into motion by the sudden suicide of their father when they were just teenagers. While back in his hometown, Milo rekindles a relationship with his old flame Rich (Ty Burrell) and Maggie begins the latest in a series of very specific hobbies as she undergoes scuba diving lessons. At first, Maggie and Milo tiptoe a bit around each other, but they fall back into their old groove rather easily and the audience begins to learn that Maggie and Milo are really the only family the two have left.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Milo and Maggie have a habit of self-sabotage. They’re unhappy people, and they continually put themselves in situations that can only have bad outcomes. No matter how hard they try, they just can’t seem to fill an aching hole inside them. That being said, the movie isn’t all doom and gloom, and at times it can be sharply funny; Hader and Wiig have a lip syncing scene that is pure bliss, and it’s destined to go down as one of the greats.
Maybe not so surprisingly, Hader absolutely knocks the role of Milo out of the park. It’s a brilliantly subtle performance that has just the right mix of drama and comedy, as Milo’s sense of humor clearly comes across as a deflection of more serious issues hidden underneath. Though Hader has excelled previously with more over-the-top characters both on SNL and in other projects, he knows exactly how to play Milo with an understated sadness that refrains from coming across as Acting with a capital “A”. There’s loneliness in Milo’s eyes, a yearning for something better, and Hader does a terrific job bringing this character to life. Wiig is also excellent as Maggie Dean, and while she’s seemingly the more “normal” of the twins, Wiig expertly communicates that Maggie has nearly all of the same issues as Milo; they just manifest themselves differently.
Though the script by Johnson and Mark Heyman doesn’t break new ground, Johnson directs the film with a confident coolness that elevates the material in concert with the essential lead performances. The cinematography is flush with cold, stark colors that reflect the emotions of Milo and Maggie without completely soaking the film in drabness. Suicide and depression are not “fun” topics to explore, but Johnson delves into themes of loneliness, aimlessness, and family with a grounded approach that prevents the film from becoming unbearably dark. Levity is essential in films like this, and Johnson layers shades of comedy throughout the movie with a surgical precision that doesn’t overshadow the film’s deeper themes. The humor comes across naturally, largely due to the commanding performances by Hader and Wiig.
Life is hard. It’s even harder when you feel like you’re doing it alone. Through the characters of Milo and Maggie, we see that a sibling bond can be an invaluable asset. Life can throw terrible, depressing curveballs sometimes, but if you’ve got someone who understands and knows you—even if you might not always see eye-to-eye—that’s a gift. We don’t have to do this alone, nor should we.