SXSW Review: Skeletons

By  · Published on March 19th, 2010

There’s a certain amount of restraint that must be used when making a “quirky” comedy. You must be offbeat, but you can’t be too weird, otherwise you risk losing the interest of the audience. There’s an equal amount of care that must go into making a film with a subtle, but vast science fiction element. In the case of Skeletons, we’re talking about a company that comes into your home, and through a mysterious process involving a pair of rocks, a fire extinguisher and a team of regular guys in business attire, they will discover your deepest, darkest secrets and then report back to you what they find.

As we see in the film’s peculiar and short-lived opening act, young couples who are about to be married may use this service so that everything about them is out in the open. All of their affairs, all of their transgressions and all of their dark family history. With their deadpan deliver and uber-professional nature, Bennett (Andrew Buckley) and Davis (Ed Gaughan) navigate the mercurial world of their profession, ever-weary that getting in too deep could send them into a fit of psychosis from which they may never be the same. It’s an oddly dangerous job, but one they both seem to enjoy.

That is, until they meet Jane (Paprika Steen), a middle-aged mother of two who employs them to find her husband who ran off eight years ago, disappearing without a trace. As they begin to inspect her situation, both Bennett and Davis are forced to use skills they didn’t know they had, and to face demons they didn’t want to admit they had.

Early in the first act, Skeletons shows its cards. It’s a quirky mystery, forged with dark humor and scored energetically. It moves like the work of another director we’ve celebrated this year, France’s Jean Pierre Jeunet. It has the winks and nods and levity that makes Jeunet’s work so enjoyable, and all of the darkness as well. It is also a smart, in the way that Monty Python is smart. Or the way that a recent film such as In Bruges was smart, or tonally matched with the work of Michel Gondry on Eternal Sunshine. But it’s a very subdued version of this smart, surreal humor. A slow-burning, deadpan film that gets its laughs – mostly in the first act.

It’s clear upon one viewing that this film is based on a great short film. The first 30-minutes of the film is as brilliantly farcical as anything I’ve seen at SXSW. Though as the film begins to shift into its second and third acts, it allows the darkness to overtake the humor, and where comedy once resided blissfully – lost in conversations about how Rasputin was a more honest man than John Lennon – melodrama moves in. And with it comes a slow close, only to be saved by a jovial score by Simon Whitfield.

To his credit, director Nick Whitfield holds on long enough to the film’s momentum to make it a brisk, agreeable 94-minute wander through a fascinating little world. He also gives the film great depth in the fleshed-out world of the skeleton diggers. It is clear that a lot of thought went into how this mysterious process works, even if we the audience don’t ever get a full explanation. It exists, and works through its own sense of logic. And thus is interesting. The film is also visually interesting, filled with muted tones and beautiful country-side set pieces. It makes the entire ride that much more enjoyable, even if the movie does crawl to a close. It wins serious points for being one of the more original movies of the year (something that should certainly be celebrated), thus far. And for being – at least for 30-minutes or so – one of the funnier.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)