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Suicide Motif Makes for a Dark Skeleton Twins

Suicide Motif Makes for a Dark <i>Skeleton Twins</i>

DVD Release Date: December 16, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: September 12, 2014
Rating: R for language, some sexuality and drug use
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 93 min.
Director: Craig Johnson
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Joanna Gleason, Boyd Holbrook

Sibling dramas at the movies are a staple, coming in all stripes and often with a heavy dose of dysfunction. In recent years, we've seen Cameron Diaz and Tony Collette as sisters trying to live with each other's flaws in In Your Shoes (2005); Emily Blunt working through a strained relationship with Rosemarie Dewitt in Your Sister's Sister (2011); and Jake Gyllenhaal sorting out his feelings for his brother’s wife in Brothers (2009).

The Skeleton Twins, starring Saturday Night Live alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, joins the long line of cinematic stories about troubled siblings. The duo haven't seen each other in a decade, but their dismal romantic and professional prospects are about to bring them together.

We first meet Milo (Hader) as he gets into a bathtub and attempts suicide. His acting career is going nowhere and life hasn't panned out as he had hoped. As far back as high school, his dad was reassuring him that the school's losers—Milo among them—would turn out to be life’s winners, while Milo’s high-school tormenters—the cool kids—would face disappointment once they embarked on the rest of their lives.

That’s not how it turned out for Milo, who believes he peaked in high school. His twin sister Maggie (Wiig) is much better off, at least in an outwardly happy marriage to loving husband, Lance (Luke Wilson, The Royal Tenenbaums). But Maggie has struggles of her own—chiefly, the urge to sleep with a Scuba instructor (Boyd Holbrook) who is the latest in a string of extramarital affairs.

Milo’s restored presence to Maggie’s life could be just what she needs, although Milo has no idea, at first, just how messy Maggie's life has become. Indeed, when we first see Maggie, she has a handful of pills and, like Milo in the film’s opening moments, is contemplating suicide. It's only a call from the hospital where Milo is staying after his failed suicide attempt that keeps Maggie from following through with ending her own life. In such a fragile state of mind herself, Maggie can’t do much to help Milo beyond offering him a place to stay while he figures out his next step. When that step turns out to be an ill-advised attempt to revive a relationship with a high-school teacher (Ty Burrell) who’s now married with a son, the siblings’ reunion hits turbulence.

Although Wiig and Hader are both well-known sketch-comedy veterans, there’s not much to laugh at in The Skeleton Twins. The film’s attempts at humor are morbid, fitting the material but keeping audience chuckles in check for the most part. These are sad and empty lives, and Milo’s self-deprecating remarks about his homosexuality ("I've always wanted to be the creepy gay uncle") come across as forced and desperate—just like the re-established connection between the siblings.

Meanwhile, Maggie’s adoring husband exhibits no behavior that would drive a spouse into the arms of other lovers. She can't figure out her compulsion to have sex with other men, and neither can we.

That’s heavy stuff for a film that’s sure to appeal, at least on the surface, to fans of Hader and Wiig’s previously demonstrated comedic chops. Thankfully, the movie does insert a few comic highlights—including a lip-synch dance routine—but probably not enough to satisfy viewers wanting more fun and less darkness. The performances themselves are impressive—we can feel these flawed individuals groping their way toward the hope of something better, even as the film doesn’t give them much to aspire toward. The best they can aim for is to go on living, and to not succumb to the legacy of their father, who took his own life when the twins were young teens. The damage such an act takes on one’s offspring is difficult to fathom, and Maggie is still grappling with it. "Sometimes I think all our problems came from him," she speculates, although a later visit from Maggie and Milo's mother suggests that any blame might be equally shared between parents.

We expect the siblings to fully reconcile and find strength in each other to go on living, and The Skeleton Twins doesn't stray too far from that formula. Nevertheless, the film's willingness to engage its characters' troubling behavior leads to a few startling moments, the best of which is Maggie’s horrified response to the revelation that Milo has taken up with his former teacher. That relationship started when Milo was just 15, and Maggie doesn't flinch from calling it what it was—a crime. Milo returns fire by bluntly telling Maggie that sex isn’t the answer to her underlying problems.

Those moments hit hard in part because Hader and Wiig have spent so much time performing together and are believable as siblings who know how to exploit each other’s weaknesses in the heat of an argument.

Scripture tells us that God "heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds" (Psalm 147:3). Maggie and Milo don't experience such healing because they're not looking to God for that hope. They have only each other to help stop their downward spirals. That’s an approach that might pay off in the short term, but it’s hard to see it as a long-term solution.

Such uncertainty makes The Skeleton Twins more mournful than funny, yet it’s that sad quality—whether intentional on the filmmakers' part or not—that makes the film more memorable than it would have been otherwise. The Skeleton Twins goes to some dark places and doesn’t allow viewers to laugh them all off.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; multiple uses of the f-word; several other uses of foul language; crude references to genitalia; a middle finger extended; “whore”
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: A dinner toast with wine and beer; drinking at a bar; Milo drunkenly discusses his need for sex; a huge glass of wine is poured when the twins’ mother arrives for a visit; the twins get high on gas at a dentist’s office; smoking of a joint; Maggie remembers having her first wine cooler; a beer toast
  • Sex/Nudity: Maggie has sex with a man in a restaurant bathroom, and we see them from the waist up, clothed, during the act; Maggie begins kissing the same man later while trying to break things off with him; Milo’s homosexuality is commented on repeatedly, and he takes up again with an ex-lover; we see Milo in the man’s bed after they’ve spent the night together, while the other man dresses for work and Milo stays in bed; Milo goes to a gay bar but learns he’s there on a night designed for lesbians only; discussion of oral sex; Maggie remembers her disgust at Milo getting sexually involved at age 15 with a teacher; Milo tells Lance all the guys at a rock-climbing wall are gorgeous; speculation about various places one might have sex; Maggie believes her extra-marital affairs indicate a sickness; Milo dresses in drag for Halloween
  • Violence/Crime/Suicide: The film opens with a suicide attempt by Milo in a bathtub, in which we don’t see any cutting but do see blood in the water; Maggie holds a handful of pills as she contemplates suicide, but she’s stopped by a phone call; Milo looks off a high roof and may be contemplating jumping before he's seen by a security officer; the twins remember their father's suicide, and wonder if all their problems come from him; Maggie, in arguing with her brother, tells Milo he should "cut deeper" when attempting suicide; Maggie tries to drown herself
  • Religion/Morals/Marriage: The mother is the only character who expresses any form of spirituality, but she comes across as a shallow, self-absorbed person who embraces a form of New Age spirituality; she tries to lead Milo to meditate; Maggie still resents that her mom missed Maggie’s wedding; Maggie appears to pray while conducting a pregnancy test 

Publication date: September 19, 2014