The topic of suicide has been the stuff of high drama onstage since at least the ancient Greeks, and of black comedy onscreen since at least the 1960s. But lately it seems to be trending as a key theme of independent films; reading the catalog for this year’s Woodstock Film Festival, it was a little difficult to sort out all the entries whose plot synopses involved a suicidal protagonist wanting to talk to one last person or visit one last place or resolve one last conundrum before he or she drops the final curtain.
Your guess is as good as mine as to what this all means, as a reflection of our zeitgeist in the twentyteens. Returning soldiers who do themselves in to escape PTSD and kids who do likewise in response to bullying or social-media ostracism are all over the news these days. Maybe we’re all just feeling a little overwhelmed, to the point where the notion of dropping out of this crazy old world permanently begins to seem perversely appealing. Or maybe by now we all know some people who have committed suicide, and discussion of the subject no longer seems quite so taboo as it once did.
In any case, watching other people, fictional people, confront their despair in a movie may serve as a healthy sort of temporary catharsis (if it doesn’t inspire copycat behavior). Who knows how many potential suicides have been averted over the decades thanks to the recollection of James Stewart’s angelic lesson in It’s a Wonderful Life? But now we live in less innocent times, so the “message” of suicide-prevention message movies needs to be couched in a code more palatable to hipsters if it’s going to have the intended effect. Case in point: Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins.
With one previous indie feature under his belt, True Adolescents (2009), Johnson is so unknown a filmmaking quantity that his name doesn’t even rate a live link in this movie’s Wikipedia entry – yet. But that’s surely going to change. His screenplay for The Skeleton Twins, co-written with Mark Heyman, won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The dialogue is heartbreakingly ironical, dark and snarky, full of lies and self-deception, as eloquent in what goes unsaid as in the lines themselves. Combined with Johnson’s deft, delicate direction, it supplies a sturdy base on which the story’s two principals can dance their evasive, self-destructive pavanne of old anger and grope tentatively for tenuous hopes of healing.
The real reasons to see this movie are the raw, splendid performances by Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as twin siblings Maggie and Milo, colliding with powerful repercussions after ten years of not talking to each other. We first meet them as he is slitting his wrists in a bathtub in LA and she is contemplating a handful of pills in a bathtub in Rockland County. Only a call on her cellphone from the emergency room where her brother has been taken comes between Maggie and her own suicide attempt. We later learn that their beloved, indulgent father threw himself off the Tappan Zee Bridge many years before, and when we meet their mother (Joanna Gleason), we get an inkling why. She’s one of those maddeningly smug old-hippie Moms (usually played by Jane Fonda) who have become such a pervasive film cliché in recent years that I for one am ready to demand a moratorium, pronto.
But back to our wounded offspring: Maggie and Milo, we learn from flashbacks, were once tighter than tight, with Maggie entirely supportive of her gay brother’s delight in cross-dressing. Indeed, painting oneself to appear what one is not is a recurring theme in this tale, with an eventful brother/sister Halloween outing the centerpiece of the narrative. The pair sport identical skeleton tattoos, emblematic of their shared offbeat approach to life, and toy skeletons are a recurring visual motif.
Talented and once full of promise, Milo at the outset of our story is despondent after repeated rejections, both romantic and in his attempts to make a career of acting. Maggie is desperately pretending to be in love with – and to be trying to have a baby with – Lance (Luke Wilson), the nice-but-hopelessly-square man whom she has married because he is “good for her.” Deep in avoidance mode, she’s compulsively having flings with more interesting bad-boys and keeping her stash of birth control pills well-hidden.
Bringing Milo back to the town where the twins grew up so that he can heal under Maggie’s watchful eye sets up a dynamic in which the piled-on pretenses are stripped away one by one like the pieces of yesterday’s elaborate Halloween costume. Contemplating the bare bones of where their lives have brought them is an excruciating process, complicated enormously by a subplot in which Milo encounters the former high school teacher (Ty Burrell) with whom he had his first affair at age 15. Hudson Valley audiences in particular will delight in the familiar settings; the film was shot mostly in Nyack, and the omnipresence of the river where their father died reverberates throughout the movie in scene after scene involving immersion in water. Goldfish here become uplifting symbols of buoyancy under stress, as well as reminders of the fragility of a positive outlook in a hard world.
This is the sort of plot that could easily become turgid melodrama in less skillful hands, and Hader is required to skate perilously close to the edge of portraying Milo as the stereotypical witty-but-tragic gay man. But the two principals play off each other beautifully, their performances superbly nuanced, perfectly timed and attuned to one another, exchanging reams of information in the lift of an eyebrow the way that only twins are supposed to be able to do. Their long history of working together on Saturday Night Live and in movies like Adventureland have clearly prepared them well for this tour de force à deux. It’s tough to say who of the two is better, but I’d give a slight edge to Hader, in whose able hands Milo’s disappointment in life burbles insistently just beneath an arch attitude as fragile as surface tension on still water. It helps that Johnson gives him the funniest lines as well.
Can these two fey, damaged creatures rediscover their childhood bond and save one another? Or is suicide really the most “viable” solution to their pain? It’s a Wonderful Life it ain’t, but The Skeleton Twins delivers just enough of a glimmer of hope, however ambivalent and flawed, to make watching it an uplifting experience – in an ironical, postmodern sort of way.