SXSW Film: ‘Skeletons’

Have you read any Magnus Mills? No, there won’t be a test. But if you’ve read the Scottish author’s wonderful The Restraint of Beasts or peculiar All Quiet on the Orient Express, and if you can think of the peculiar sort of existence the men in his novels have — their work repetitive and disconcerting work, their goals as arbitrary as anything, their situations just a little off — you may find it easier to sink into the out-of-time, mildly surreal, darkly funny world of Skeletons.

Nick Whitfield’s movie has a horror-film name but is nothing of the sort. In it, two men, one tall and red-haired, one short and slumped, walk across the English countryside. They carry briefcases. They argue, amusingly, about esoteric minutiae (one long-running discussion is about Rasputin’s morality). Their working relationship — long-running, familiar, antagonistic — is as clear as their job is initially perplexing. Why suits? Why do they travel only on foot? Where are they exactly?

Whitfield takes his time with the details, but the spare atmosphere and lonesome framing set the tone: offbeat, anachronistic, intimate. The men visit strangers, ask them to sign elaborate forms, and then perform a procedure. How it works is irrelevant, though a fire extinguisher and a pair of shiny rocks are involved; what it uncovers gives the film its name.

People, mostly couples, request the procedure as a sign of commitment or, in one case, as one more step in a long line of attempts to get closer — attempts that come off like a kind of work all their own. People make themselves busy; people push themselves apart. They use a search for answers as a way to ignore the questions: How did we get here? Why are we like this?

Davis (Ed Gaughan) and Bennett (Andrew Buckley) can only give evidence, not answer questions. “It’s simple, this job,” Davis says. “Stick to the rules, tell them everything, leave and never come back.” But in his free time, Davis, the shorter, sterner of the two, has a secret and lives in a boat in the middle of nowhere. Bennett, taller, bespectacled, is a softie, always pushing at the rules that keep him distant from those who hire him.

Their next job is different. In a thin, fey forest near a lovely old home, a woman (Paprika Steen) digs, looking for her lost husband. Her small son latches on to Bennet as a paternal stand-in. Her daughter, Rebecca, a beautiful, elfin twentysomething (the improbably named Tuppence Middleton), doesn’t speak, though she makes her fierce disinterest in her mother’s quest quite clear.

Whitfield’s debut feature (adapted from an earlier short) wobbles a little when it finds its main narrative thread. It’s not that the beats aren’t honest, or that the reveals are necessarily too predictable, but that the film’s beguilingly immediate beginning — no lead-in, no warmup, no introductions, just this, here, now — is at the heart of its winning, odd effectiveness. The fields and forests (the film is rich in greens) through which Davis and Bennett walk are lovely, pastoral and nondescript; their clients could be anyone; their lives could contain nothing but this. The lack of anchors, the way Whitfield never bounds his characters’ existences with biography, gives Skeletons the resonance of a short story that contains an entire life, painted on a tiny canvas but composed of vital details that tell all the important truths.

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