There’s no doubt that Christopher Nolan’s Inception has been the summer blockbuster of this year, with its intelligent high-concept labyrinthine plot venturing into the fairly original territory of the manipulation of dreams and subconscious mind-states. If you found Inception however to be a little self-satisfied with its own cleverness and not even really all that clever when you walk away from the screen and think about it, the concept perhaps not explored deeply or realistically enough, tending to fall back on elaborate action sequences with an over-reliance on special effects, then Skeletons, a small independent low-fi sci-fi British film from Nick Whitfield – winner of the 2010 Edinburgh International Film Festival’s prestigious Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature Film – could be the perfect antidote, exploring those fearful recesses of the mind with a much more delicate and comedic touch in a rather more low-key and British manner. Which is to say, it doesn’t take itself half as seriously.
The film opens in a Tarantino-influenced manner, with two businessmen in dark suits making their way towards their next assignment, discussing the finer points of Russian history, or at least in how they apply to the tricky business of killing someone with a Rasputin-like near-invulnerability to poison, strangulation and drowning – but there’s a self-awareness in the reference that is very much overturned by the incongruity of their surroundings as they walk through the English countryside, with only a drawing of a house in place of an address or a map, and in the very mismatched nature of their appearances. One is a large over-weight red-haired man of a gentle nature, and he’s paired with a smaller man, looking and sounding somewhat like a spiv in his ill-fitting suit and his no-nonsense business-like salesman approach to getting the job done.
The job that Mr Davis (Ed Gaughan) and Mr Bennett (Andrew Buckley) carry out is indeed not a pleasant one, and there’s little time for pleasantries or small-talk. They are there to clear skeletons out of closets, with the willing cooperation of the parties involved, usually couples wanting to start their relationship off with a clean sheet or to remove any lingering doubts about their partner’s fidelity. Inevitably, it’s a nasty business messing about in other people’s dirty linen closets, or indeed delving as our two psychic investigators literally do into the actual wardrobes for those dark seedy little secrets, the household metaphors a charming indication of the banal domestic nature of the work, one indeed in stark contrast to the high-concept dream-building of Inception.
The ‘Procedure’ however is also not without its risks, and they can be quite serious, as their boss reminds them, citing other recent disasters and burn-outs among the company’s team of operatives, but The Colonel (Jason Isaacs) has high hopes for Davis and Bennett, grooming them to be his next ‘A Team’. His faith in the pair would however seem to be unfounded, Bennett being prone to “going native” and sympathising a little too closely with his clients, while Davis’s gift for seeing and his escapism through the lure of “the glow” threaten his own grasp on reality. The pair find their talent tested in the unexpected form of a missing person case that seems a little mundane and outside of their normal field of expertise. Finding mother of two Jane (Paprika Steen) digging holes in the surrounding fields, the two however immediately sense that there’s something unusual about this particular case.
Nick Whitfield’s direction of this unusual mix of the surreal and the banal is just about pitch perfect, certainly reminiscent of the incongruity of Terry Gilliam’s flights of fantasy from the mundane, but with a much lower budget. The script is frequently amusing, expertly run through by the well-honed comedy team of Gaughan and Buckley, not so much for the sharpness of the wit as for the underlying characteristics it subtly draws out from their personalities, achieving a heart-warming and sympathetic feel for the very real flaws and failings in their lives. Skeletons isn’t afraid of confronting those seemingly mundane aspects of real lives for the inherent drama that lies within, but through his pair of psychic investigators and some arcane mystic forces, finds an entertaining way to get to the heart of what matters to real people much better than you’ll find in any more slickly-made blockbusters in the cinema at the moment.