In this character-driven 92-minute dramatic comedy by director and co-writer Craig Johnson, the childhood experiences of a brother and sister directly relate to their current crises. The Skeleton Twins effectively weaves flashbacks into the storytelling to reveal crucial elements of their past.
The film begins with a voiceover narration in which a woman says, “Maybe we were doomed from the beginning,” followed by a flashback in which a young sister and brother, apparently dressed up for Halloween, play games with their masked father. He gives them a toy skeleton that appears again in subsequent flashbacks, sometimes dangling from their fingers, sometimes sinking to the bottom of their swimming pool.
Despite the creepiness of this opening scene, the children and their father obviously enjoy themselves in preparation for the holiday. The happiness of the flashback contrasts significantly with the next few scenes, in which the adult brother and sister attempt to kill themselves.
An Explanation of the Present
Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star as estranged twins in their thirties who haven’t spoken in 10 years over a disagreement neither remembers very well. Their suicidal tendencies, which manifest on the same night, draw them together again. Maggie (Wiig), married to good-natured outdoorsman Lance (Luke Wilson), keeps dangerous secrets from her husband, including an extra-marital affair. Although he seems sane and stable, just the kind of man she needs, Lance cannot relieve Maggie’s chronic unhappiness.
Milo (Hader), her deeply depressed gay twin brother, lives in Los Angeles where he struggles to find work as an actor and meet the right man. After his failed suicide attempt, Milo agrees to move in with Maggie and Lance temporarily in their upstate New York home. Now back in the town where he grew up, Milo seeks out his former lover (Ty Burrell), a teacher who seduced him in high school.
Renewing the Bonds of Youth
As Maggie and Milo renew their old bond, they also start meddling in each other’s personal business. Both feel drawn to the wrong lovers, consistently make self-destructive choices, and get sad in autumn around Halloween time when memories of their father emerge.
A brief visit by their self-centered, new-age mother (Joanna Gleason) gives a hint of what their home life must have been like as children after their father’s suicide when they were teenagers.
In a state of denial, she conducts insight seminars and wants only to talk about “pleasant things” because “everything is terrific.” However, just beneath the surface, decidedly unpleasant and terrible truths remain unhealed within her grown children.
Called “The Gruesome Twosome” when they were young, Maggie and Milo spent many happy times with their father. They retain that fascination with dark macabre elements, such as costumes, masks, face paint, skeletons, and death; venturing out as costumed adults to parties on Halloween night. As the movie comes full circle, from childhood Halloween experiences to the present, additional clues of how their past affects the present are necessary to fully understand these characters.
The Flashback as Stylized Memory
Filmmakers have many options for providing the backstory for their characters using various cinematic devices, such as dialogue, voiceovers, letters/diaries/photographs/home movies from the past, and altered states of consciousness. In the case of suicidal adult twins, we need information about their childhood to piece the story together.
In addition to the brief introductory narration and minimal reflective dialogue between Maggie and Milo (they’re usually either joking with each other or arguing), this movie relies on flashbacks to reveal crucial childhood experiences.
Flashbacks are true memories experienced by the character while awake, as opposed to other cinematic states of consciousness including drug-induced hallucinations, waking fantasies, and dreams while asleep. Visual effects, such as soft focus, color changes, and sound distortion, often serve as cues to a character’s altered state of consciousness to set these sequences apart from the rest of the film.
When adult Maggie flashes back to her past, the film shows her and Milo as children trying on their father’s mask and holding their breath underwater. These sequences appear several times throughout the film, although briefly, and appear to have softer focus and diffused lighting to suggest a faraway and long ago quality.
Clearly memories because of the age difference of the characters between then and now, these flashbacks serve as symbolic representations of the past and eerie foreshadowing of the future. In addition to avoiding lengthy backstory narrative, this storytelling device provides a satisfying artistic flair to this small, hand-crafted film.
Blend of Comedy and Drama
Although a story about emotionally-damaged twins may not sound like a particularly humorous premise, the two lead actors make all the difference between success and failure for this film. Hader portrays Milo as a man who has lost his father, lost his love, and lost his career, but hasn’t lost his sense of humor. As Maggie, Wiig reveals a touching vulnerability beneath her false façade.
The wonderful chemistry between the two former Saturday Night Live comedians and the film’s flashback artistry help elevate the sometimes contrived story and brighten the more difficult emotional moments, making this film a quirky delight.