Fantasia Film Festival’s Survival Skills was a completely unexpected, timely and incredibly biting satire about American law enforcement presented with one of the most playful and unique handlings of form and narrative I’ve ever seen.
Sure, watching this film in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and the reoccurring scenes of police brutality does make the criticisms Quinn Armstrong’s film raises against the American law enforcement all the more poignant and relevant. But as Survival Skills points out, these aren’t exactly new or surprising criticisms, and they’re certainly not completely specific to America.
The first signifier of this is, and the aforementioned extremely interesting playing with form and narrative, is that the film is presented as a VHS copy of a training video for a local police-force, which immediately lets us know that even though the things it satirises are still modern issues, they can also be dated back to a time when people watched video tapes rather than streaming services.
In this regard, Survival Skills is, in fact, a love letter to a bygone era of physical media and having to rewind video tapes after you’ve watched them. It also incorporates its VHS-style, grainy and old-looking presentation, weaving it into the narrative. We see the classic nostalgic imperfections of lines and static glitches throughout the film. However, as situations get worse, or our characters are placed in danger, these visual glitches get more severe, and the noisy static gets almost deafening.
So, we are placed into the point of view of a new recruit for the fictional Middletown Police Department, as we’re about to watch a training video. It’s immediately clear that Quinn has nailed the aesthetic, tone and cheesy corporateness of the conventional training videos we’ve all had to endure, something that Quinn uses excellently to frame his satire.
We then get a vide within a video as The Narrator, played by Stacy Keach, plays another video for us to watch within the training video, showing us the life of a new recruit in their first year on the force. The new recruit is bright, jolly and perfectly innocent, albeit robotic and scripted Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell) who begins life as a cop in a Ronald Reagan-esque suburban utopia that’s akin to The Stepford Wives in terms of its polished exterior hiding a sinister element.
Jim, who has a perfect jam-making wife, begins his life on the force with typical training video doe-eyed enthusiasm until, in a fun pretence that the narrative isn’t already fixed, the narrator lands on domestic violence for Jim’s first major crime on a spinning wheel. The Narrator is dismayed because not only is domestic violence not a conventionally happy crime for a training video, it’s also not particularly exciting.
Nevertheless Jim attends the domestic violence call and has his eyes opened. From then he’s unable to let the case go, convinced that something is wrong, but while he initially is awkward with stunted interaction, he becomes less robotic and more human as the reality of domestic violence cases washes away the corporate spin. All this leads to an incredible powerful scene where Jim interviews the daughter of the family to get to the bottom of what her father had done for her and upon learning the father is a monster, has a breakdown in the corridor.
The fourth wall is broken so many times as The Narrator desperately tries to move Jim on from the domestic violence case he can’t shake. He frequently warns Jim not to get involved, including a scene where The Narrator keeps rewinding the tape to stop a phone-call Jim makes to the abused wife that he shouldn’t, but every time it’s rewinded and started again Jim still makes the call.
The Narrator also puts Jim onto other cases, and even completely cuts to a different training video about crowd control that Jim ends up interrupting after walking by in the background. This creates the illusion of narrative freedom, but in reality, the film is on rails and Jim is fated to do what he does, which is, of course, another commentary. This is particularly absurd considering this is a video tape within a video tape with the two interacting with each other.
The film also cleverly uses the naïve and childlike Jim to expose the flaws in the system that are supposed to protect domestic abuse victims, he, as I assume many people watching, assume that things like the church, charity and society will step in to protect victims. But as we see in the film, all of these institutions fail to protect the family Jim promised would be safe, thus serving as another reminder to him that he cannot ‘protect and serve.’
This is all part of the satire, as Armstrong pointedly tells us that a police officer can either be a highly indoctrinated, carbon copy robot-like follower of rules and regulations or they can be a human being, and we certainly see Jim’s character flip-flop between these two things. Another example being when his scripted wife gets to say her dialogue and leaves him, and he’s unable to put into words how he really feels until the second it’s too late.
This portion of the training video has several classic police procedural drama tropes, such as Jim’s partner being grizzled and cold to Jim until they eventually become friends, one great scene shows us Jim’s partner revealing she hates people and Jim telling her she shouldn’t be a cop. We also see Jim struggling to juggle his family life and work, becoming obsessed with one specific case, and in a reversal of conventional tropes we see outwardly tough and unreasonable police commissioner praise Jim’s compassion rather than admonish him for it.
All of this helps to paint a picture of the police that is simultaneously sympathetic and critical. The film suggests that police officers are not getting the ‘survival skills’ they need due to inefficient training, political red-tape and politician-esque interference and speech and a lack of emphasis on individuals and emotional situations.
One particularly cutting scene is where we see a demonstration of what to do when a situation turns violent. The officer is given the option to ‘move to more advantageous ground’, ‘draw their firearm ready to defend themselves’ and ‘loudly direct the person that they are being aggressive’ but the words on the screen read ‘run, shoot, shout’. Showing there’s a disconnect between the training-video corporate jargon, and reality, with police officers often caught unawares.
Ultimately, Survival Skills is a thoughtful deconstruction of the issues within the police-force and a timely reminder that the world is often not as black and white as it seems and that the realities of crime and difficult situations are often complex and hard to deal with. It postures that this is why so many police officers end up broken, and why so many incidents end in tragedy. By the time Jim has fully come to loathe the way the world works it’s too late for him, but hopefully the film can give others the skills they need to survive.
For more reviews and interviews, check out our Fantasia Film Festival 2020 coverage here