Some people believe that the best relationships are built on full disclosure. They are the sorts who keep a company like Veridical in business. Using clandestine supernatural means, two be-suited individuals will come to your house and air your dirty laundry so that you may start your marriage off right or strengthen an existing one. Two such agents, Davis and Bennett (Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley) are the protagonists of “Skeletons,” the surreal black comedy playing at the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival. With a promotion on the line, they’ve been hired to help a woman find her missing husband. Of course, the job ends up being much more complicated than they’d anticipated. And it just may lead to some convenient self-discovery. It’s a cute premise with an interesting execution but it leaves too much of its universe unexplained.
This is what we know: The genial colleagues commute on foot through the English countryside, passing the time, like a pair of low-rent Tom Stoppard characters, with philosophical debates about the moral standing of famous historical figures. Once they locate their clients (using only an illustration of the residence), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get to work extracting figurative skeletons from the literal closet. Once done, they report their findings to the customer. These reports are likely not always well received, hence a comically exhaustive signing and initialing of paperwork to relieve Veridical of all blame. It’s a dangerous procedure too, requiring goggles and fire extinguishers in addition to magic rocks and machines that go “boop.”
We know other things too. Davis has a natural ability to do this on his own. It’s called “glow chasing” and he uses it to revisit a favorite memory from his childhood. But if he’s not careful, he could get stuck there forever. We know that Veridical is run by a gruff man called The Colonel who really wants to promote Davis and Bennett to his “A Team”, provided they do well on their next job.
This is what we don’t know: How does “the procedure” work, exactly? How did it become a business? How are people recruited for this line of work? And, most importantly, why would anyone pay these guys, supernatural abilities or no, to discover secrets they could just as easily tell each other for free? It’s as if their entire clientele consists of people just wanting to see if it actually works.
That is, until, they meet Jane (Paprika Steen), a woman whose husband disappeared eight years prior, rendering her daughter, Rebecca (Tuppence Middleton), mute. Jane isn’t in great mental shape either as she spends her days digging holes in the woods behind her house in the off chance that her husband is buried there. It’s a complex job from the start, made more complex by some pseudo-science techno babble they don’t really explain and the grumpy Rebecca, who just may have a secret of her own.
Written and directed by Nick Whitfield and adapted from his short film of the same name, “Skeletons” is not bad for a debut feature. The cinematography, with lengthy wide shots of fields and forests, is beautiful and the jaunty music keeps the beat. Maybe it’s all the mustaches, but the whole thing feels very French. The cast, particularly the two leads, does a great job making the adequate dialogue sound whip smart. The striking Tuppence Middleton aside, there is a refreshing bit of realism provided by any film filled with regular-looking people.
From a script standpoint, there are a lot of good ideas here but I suspect they felt more satisfying in short form. 95 minutes seems like a long time to not really get to know anybody. Perhaps Whitfield didn’t want over-explain things and as a hater of awkward exposition, I appreciate that. But at the end of the film, the characters still felt like characters strangers. I wanted to know more about them. “Skeletons” is a terrific shell of an idea that Whitfield should have fleshed out. In fact, it would make a terrific television series with this film as the pilot. It would be exciting to revisit these characters week after week and learn more about whom they are while they help people. But “Skeletons” the film is something you need only visit once.