The Skeleton Twins works on almost every level.
It was made with a lot of passion through the prowess of director Craig Johnson and some very strong performances by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, who don’t let their Saturday Night Live alumni status inhibit their ability to deliver great work in a film that made me laugh, tense and even hold my breath at times.
The film begins as most films should: with attempted suicide!
In one corner, we meet Milo Dean, played by Bill Hader, who writes a letter and drops a photo into a fish tank. He rests in his bathtub and slowly waits as blood begins to fill the tub.
In the other corner, we meet Maggie Dean, played by Kristen Wiig, as she prepares to down a bottle of pills before receiving a call from an unknown number. Maggie is understandably pissed since she put herself on a no-call registry, but it turns out that a hospital has called to let her know that her brother recently attempted suicide. Guess it’s good she didn’t swallow those pills.
So Maggie goes to meet her brother, who she hasn’t seen in over ten years. Milo will only be in the hospital for one or two days, but he’ll soon be discharged. Milo doesn’t want Maggie there, but she still plans to be around anyway.
Maggie meets up with Milo after he’s been released. She finds him reading Marley and Me and comments on how sad the book is, when Milo hasn’t finished it yet. He discards it after guessing the book’s ending, but reveals that he knew all about it anyway, showing Maggie that he still has his sense of humor. Given her brother’s situation, Maggie suggests that Milo move into her guest room in New York. Milo initially objects, thinking that Maggie is doing this because she was guilted into doing it. Plus, he still has his aquarium to think about, but he eventually relents.
At Maggie’s place, Milo meets her husband, Lance, played by Luke Wilson. Over dinner, we learn that Maggie has been taking scuba diving lessons. At the same time, she and Lance have been trying to have a baby even though, in high school, Maggie never wanted kids.
That evening, Maggie stops by Milo’s new room and the two talk about what they’ve been up to since their separation. Milo has been acting, but it’s hard to break into an already crowded field, especially without an agent. In the meantime, he waits tables and hates it. Such is the life of a customer service employee, really.
The next day, we cut to Maggie taking her lessons and meet her instructor, Billy, played by Boyd Holbrook. From the looks the two share, it’s clear that there’s a spark between them, but more on that later.
Milo, meanwhile, heads to a bookstore and meets up with his old friend, Rich, played by Ty Burrell. Rich is surprised and, quite frankly, not ready for this unexpected reunion.
So later that evening, Milo drowns his sorrows in alcohol, but unfortunately for him, he stopped by on dyke night. Unless he wants to start pitching for the other team, he’s out of luck. He gets himself drunk and rants his way all the way back to Maggie’s.
The next day, he apologizes for his behavior, saying he just needed to blow off some steam. As far as Milo’s job prospects go, Maggie has something in mind: Lance needs help on his trail project at a dam. Milo will just be helping him clean and though the job doesn’t come with a sexy outfit, as he’d prefer, it’s still a job.
That evening, Milo tells Maggie that he made a call and has a surprise for her. It’s a visit from their mother, Judy, played by Joanna Gleason. And after a longer-than-normal toast, an awkward dinner follows. Maggie is not a fan of her mother being there and makes it known by pointing out that Judy missed her own daughter’s wedding, always goes on retreats and calls her out for being a shitty mother. Well, that’s a family reunion! When dinner ends, Lance wisely offers to walk Judy out.
Maggie chews Milo out for inviting their mother, but Milo had nothing but good intentions. He honestly thought that Judy had changed. She could not have been that good if she apparently drove her husband to jump off of a bridge.
Later, Milo meets up with Rich and the two have a longer conversation this time. Again, Rich didn’t expect to ever see Milo again, especially since he’s moved on from their troubled past. Rich has a girlfriend, Melinda, and a son, Eric. Milo mentions what he’s been up to, but leaves out the part about not having an agent. Why make an already awkward situation even worse? I say that, knowing how this movie plays out.
Speaking of making a situation even worse, Maggie and the scuba instructor fuck.
The next day, Milo drops Maggie off at the dental office where she works. Maggie asks Milo for his opinion on whether she should have kids and if she’d even make a good mother. Milo doesn’t think she would and lets her know as such.
After a brief talk with Lance, Milo heads back to the dental office and apologizes for pissing her off. The best way to make this up is to get high off of anesthesia. Hey, all the kids are doing it, so why not screw around?
When the two are high enough, they start sharing secrets. Milo actually went down on a woman because he was curious. And drunk. Maggie’s secret? She’s taking birth control and there’s a lot of remorse in her voice when she reveals this. Though it would be much easier to admit that she’s not ready, Maggie can’t reveal this to Lance because it would just destroy him. I wonder if that will come up later.
Milo heads off to meet up with Rich again and the two talk more about their pasts, with Milo saying that Rich didn’t do anything wrong. However, the time they spend together leads to Milo being late for work the next day. Before Milo leaves, Rich hands Milo a script and requests that Milo pass it onto his agent.
Oh, Maggie tries to break it off with the scuba instructor, but it just leads to round two.
At home, Maggie takes her anger out on a pumpkin and then Milo for not being responsible. Milo knows just the way to calm her nerves: Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”
Following this quite amusing dance number, Milo heads to Rich’s home that evening, but Rich doesn’t want him there because his son could see him.
In his depressed funk, Milo downs some Cuervo at a bar before heading to a bridge and standing on the edge. He drops the copper whale figurine that Rich gave him and before he can decide on his next move, a police officer stops him.
When Milo is turned over to his sister, Maggie flies into a rage, but Milo insists that he would not have jumped. He thinks back to his father’s encouraging words about him blooming when he grew up after high school. Milo saw himself as happy, while he figured this one jerk named Justin would grow up to be unhappy. But it turns out that Milo did some research and not only is Justin now an electrician, he has a family and is happy. So Milo is the one who peaked. People try hard to not be disappointed with how their lives turned out, so they must find ways to deal with life.
And that’s where we’ll hold the plot.
There’s a lot to dissect with The Skeleton Twins. Despite the casting of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, I’d say there’s a lot more drama than comedy in this film. It makes you laugh, but also provides some very uncomfortable moments right from the start. Heck, you want to hook your audience at the beginning? Have the main characters both about to commit suicide and then expand on the reasons behind that. Well, sort of, but we’ll get to that.
As Maggie and Milo are both very flawed, the film is about realizing and accepting the very imperfections that make us human. As we grow up and gain more wisdom and life experience, we see what we’re capable of, but learn to make the most of it instead of figuring that life dealt us a bad hand. This is at the heart of Milo and Maggie’s conversation when Milo realizes that he peaked early and his life isn’t as exciting as he had hoped. They expected to be somewhere else.
The movie does a good job of showing what connects siblings together and how the relationship between a brother and sister goes deeper than one would get from a couple or best friends. Maggie and Milo are connected through their prolonged suffering: their mother rarely being there for them when they were young, their guidance counselor never being of much help and, ultimately, their father committing suicide. You know how people sometimes say that you know yourself better than anyone else? Here, Maggie and Milo truly know each other better than the people in their lives because, when you get down to it, they’re all each other have. This doesn’t mean that they intentionally close their lives out to other people, but that, in their eyes, no one else will really understand them.
We put on masks throughout our daily lives in order to mask our true emotions and keep people from knowing how we really feel. We put barriers up all around us and feel that if we put a smile on our face, no one will see us for how we really are. It’s how we cope with our own misery: by burying it. Not at all a healthy method, speaking from experience here.
On the flip side, venting, as Maggie does a lot of, helps us get great emotional bursts out all at once. This comes as a result of holding onto pain and suffering. But we don’t get bonus points for wallowing around in our own pity or wanting people to feel sorry for us. We can’t undo the past, but holding onto agony doesn’t help anyone. Venting comes as a result of burying anger deep and letting it fester into something much worse. As a result, our worst side can and will come out at the worst possible time, possibly on someone who doesn’t deserve it.
Despite how serious this film can be, there’s plenty of comedy. Much of this comes through Hader and Wiig’s chemistry, but Luke Wilson is also charming in his role as the fun-loving boyfriend. The scene where Maggie and Milo get high off of anesthesia could be the closest thing to improv, but even that has some genuinely funny moments. During the awkward dinner scene with Maggie and Milo’s mother, Milo tries to break the tension by saying that he’s never taken a shit before. That’s the kind of conversation I want to overhear at a dinner table.
I liked the use of fish and fish tanks as representative of Maggie and Milo. Throughout the film, we see them getting new fish or caring for their current ones by looking for new tanks. The tanks themselves are see-through. The fish may be protected, but you can still see right through them and peer into their lives. The same applies to Maggie and Milo: they’re just going through the motions without clear direction, while we as an audience get to follow their every step.
I also think it was a smart move on the writers’ part to never show or fully explain Maggie and Milo’s father. I’m fine with this because he works better as a symbol. We know that he committed suicide and used to encourage Maggie and Milo. While I wish we got something instead of Maggie and Milo just telling us, having him only explained in bursts keeps him as a mystery.
It is incredible how well Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig click together. Their time spent together on Saturday Night Live and films they both appeared in speaks volumes about their chemistry. I completely buy them as a brother and sister who just found each other again. Their arguments feel authentic and raw, as if they’ve been saving their worst insults during their separation. Both are self-destructive and needy, but it’s important to note that neither Maggie nor Milo are in competition with each other. They’re not trying to outperform or prove that their life is better since they’re both stuck.
Bill Hader in particular surprised me with his performance. Milo desires to make something out of himself, but his Hollywood career hasn’t taken off, like he had hoped. At the same time, he won’t allow himself to be babied by Maggie. He wants to stand on his own two feet, but that’s difficult because of how hard it is to make a name for yourself as an actor. Of the two, Milo is definitely the more honest, I think. He speaks his mind more often than Maggie, such as when he tells her that he doesn’t think she’d be a good mother, and he seeks out Rich, even though that just opens fresh wounds from their past. He’s more prone to suicidal behaviors and desperate for companionship, but he’s not completely needy.
Milo holds onto hope that the family can eventually work out its issues, such as when he invites their mother to dinner. He wants to lighten the mood when things are tense, proving this when he gets a reluctant Maggie to join him in a duet of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” one of the highlights of the film, if the trailer was any indication. And most important for me, the fact that Milo is gay is not one of his defining characteristics. Too often in films and television is a gay character defined by them being gay. Sure, it’s brought up, but it’s not the one thing you remember about him.
Equally powerful in her performance is Kristen Wiig. She’s trying to hold her life together through a steady job, a man who loves her and preparing to have a baby. But while Milo is more open about who he is, Maggie has more secrets that she hides from others, Lance especially. Now I won’t give them away because that would give away some of the best conversations later on in the film, but Maggie is not as open and honest as she would have us believe. She’s just as damaged goods as Milo is and is quicker to react negatively. She takes longer to lighten up because she wants to maintain some semblance of stability and rigidity. Now obviously the film’s opening contradicts that, since our first look at her involves her about to commit suicide, but she tries to keep a level head.
Maggie’s dishonesty is her downfall. She sleeps around and cheats on a man who, in my opinion, is too good for her. But instead of wearing her infidelity like a badge of honor, Maggie shows true remorse when she slights Lance, but doesn’t tell him about what she’s done. She wants to keep that happiness going, even if means keeping secrets.
She does truly care for Milo’s well-being. She worries about him when he shows up late for work and when he considers killing himself. Even after all of the crazy things they’ve been through, she still wants to make sure that she’s not walking through life alone.
And Luke Wilson is just charming as ever. He’s a nice guy, but not clingy. He’s willing to step back when necessary and has quite a number of funny moments. Honestly, Lance deserves someone much better than Maggie. His undying devotion to her and unwillingness to believe that she would keep secrets shows how the trust between them is not two ways.
Again, there’s really a lot I’d love to say about this film, but that would delve into spoiler territory. I do have one minor complaint. Without giving too much away, this film goes to some very dark places. It’s very bleak. Often, writers want to give viewers a happy ending so they walk out satisfied, but others pull no punches. This is why I have such respect for programs like The Leftovers and, to a lesser extent, Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. They prove that viewers shouldn’t get too attached to characters because everyone isn’t promised a happy ending.
The Skeleton Twins almost goes in a certain direction toward the end that I thought would have been very dark, but more surprising and risky. A gutsy move probably would have alienated viewers, so as much as I love this movie, I think it took the easy way out with its ending. That’s all I’ll say on that.
The biggest strength of The Skeleton Twins comes through the amazing performances of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. They, like Jenny Slate did earlier this year with Obvious Child, shed their Saturday Night Live personalities and deliver stunning work in a complex brother-sister relationship that feels real, raw and cuts deep, both figuratively and literally. The two struggle to stay afloat in a world that’s not as exciting as they had hoped. The movie examines this dysfunctional pair and shows that, despite their troubled pasts, despite the people who abandon or who they, in turn, abandon, they manage to be there for one another. They may not be the most functional pair, but they are the best for each other. To them, that’s enough.
I highly recommend The Skeleton Twins.