The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Skeletons was part of special coverage of the Chicago International Film Festival by The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
Skeletons is a film out of the U.K. that manages to avoid many of the quirky clichés that have sprung up around the absurdity-fests inspired by Charlie Kaufman scripts. That fact alone would make it a film worth seeing, but it also succeeds in offering a perceptive look at the psychologically damaging effects of abandonment and loneliness on three very different people.
Davis (Ed Gaughan) and Bennett (Andrew Buckley) are psychics working for a company that provides a very unique service to people: For a fee, they will search through the subconscious of their clients — which is usually located in a closet or wardrobe in their home — and report back on the secrets they discover people hiding from each other. This is all done with a back-breaking amount of bureaucratic paperwork and in as dispassionate a manner as possible.
For Davis and Bennett, the job is taking a serious toll. Davis is a “natural” — a psychic who is “gifted” from birth with the ability. This means that he often abuses his “gift” by visiting a memory from his childhood when his parents were curled up with him in front of the fire, telling him a bedtime story. Bennett is not a “natural” and relies on technology provided to him in order to enter the memories of other people. In addition to having to put up with resentment from Davis about his inability to work without technology, while being the one in charge, he is losing the stomach for their work — quickly burning out on delivering bad news about infidelities to heartbroken couples. When their malevolent, yet oddly clingy, boss The Colonel (Jason Isaacs in a grand comedic performance) assigns them to the case of attempting to find a man who has been missing seven years, Bennett jumps at it. Not only does it mean not having to inform people about cheating spouses, but it could lead to a promotion into the corporate espionage sector of the company.
Writer/director Nick Whitfield does a very smart thing by never trying to explain the hows or whys of the company that employs Davis and Bennett. If you’re willing to buy into the idea of a pair of psychics that roam the English countryside, there’s no point in explaining how their equipment works, why they walk everywhere instead of driving, why Davis lives in an abandoned boat in the shadow of nuclear power plants, or why The Colonel has a scar around his neck that looks suspiciously like he just escaped hanging. The point becomes that these people have a very unique ability and job, but they still have the same fears, worries, hopes, and regrets that everyone else has.
With the introduction of Jane (Paprika Steen), the wife of the missing man, and Rebecca (Tuppence Middleton), her daughter who hasn’t spoken in three years, the film comes dangerously close to being quirky just for the sake of being quirky. Jane spends most of her time digging holes across the countryside to make sure her husband isn’t buried there. Rebecca is sullen and incredibly hostile to Davis for no apparent reason. But Whitfield manages to pull back and make their attributes understandable. They have been trapped in a limbo between hope and grief so long that they need their foibles to survive the uncertainty — it’s certainly better than the alternative of waiting around and constantly wondering what happened.
While the film starts out as a character study of two lonely people, it quickly becomes an ensemble piece. Fortunately, the entire cast rises to the occasion. Gaughan brings a sympathetic edge to the snappish Davis. He makes Davis’s anger and sadness understandable and provides the film with the much-needed transition from silly comedy to effective pathos as a man retreating to the past to avoid the disappointments of the present. Buckley has a wounded charm as the brunt of most of Davis’s outbursts and acts as the film’s essential straight-man. Steen and Middleton provide nice shadings of realism to characters that are slightly underwritten.
The transition between the second and third acts is a little messy as the search for Jane’s missing husband, Davis and Bennett’s issues, and a hidden agenda on Rebecca’s part crash together. Still, Whitfield manages to pull it all together for a satisfying resolution helped along by the great chemistry between Gaughan and Buckley. If you’re in the mood for a touching, lightly absurd comedy, Skeletons is a true delight.
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