Talk about being knocked for a loop. Who knew that the movie that I think had the biggest impact on me in 2020 would be a film that for all intents and purposes looks like a training film from the 1980’s?
Survival Skills begins as an unearthed police educational film narrated by Stacy Keach and turns into something much different, a film that plays with the very media that it has been created within, turning the characterless characters of these videos — I’m a huge fan of stuff like Grill Skills and McC: Inside and Outside Custodial Duties — and discover what their real lives were like, if they ever had them. Who are the side characters in their lives and what is life like for them? And what happens in the cheery reality of these unliving beings when real life rudely intrudes?
Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell) is someone you may know, a cop who is just starting on the job, who must confront the harsh realities that the police academy never prepared him for.
In the wake of calls to defund the police and a look at the way the men and women wearing the badge must protect and serve a public that has come to hate and fear them, this movie takes a stark look at the training and videos that prepared them, including Dave Grossman and his killology philosophy, which teaches “officers to be less hesitant to use lethal force, urge them to be willing to do it more quickly and teach them how to adopt the mentality of a warrior,” according to the Washington Post.
But what happens when a cop like Jim just wants to help a victim of abuse that can’t seem to break from the cycle? Surely society has ways to help people in that situation. You’d think so. But this film shows that the truth is quite darker.
Jim also grows darker in this story, going from the by the book example from every one of those fake educational videos into a haunted soul who has turned to his original shell of a personality to hide from the anguish that being a real person involves. Every positive step he’s tried to make is a failure; people won’t or can’t help the abused woman who he just wants to save.
Even the film stock itself has meaning here. Unlike so many movies that believe being 80’s influenced means just having vague allusions to John Carpenter-esque synth background music and bad takes on fashion, this film uses the tracking and hum and hiss of videotape to pile on the slowing growing current of hopelessness. Keach shines brightly as the narrator, going from telling the story to commanding parts of it, even able to snap his fingers and take us from his reality to the reality of Jim, changing the look from drabness to high def and back again. And unlike so many of the faux 80’s films that litter the landscape, this one gets one thing right: the specter of Reagan hung heavy over everything.
There’s also a moment of Satanic Panic in here that I don’t want to ruin, but only want to say that it does the best job I’ve seen a film do in translating the strangeness of that era, a time when police would come to your school or church to warn you of the dangers of demons hiding throughout popular culture.
Quinn Armstrong, who wrote and directed this, has made a movie that does exactly what great films should: I’m still thinking about this movie hours after watching it, wondering how the characters have moved on, as if they were real people. It’s an astounding film that tells a story perfect for our time and has my highest recommendation.
Survival Skills will be available on demand on December 4, but is playing in virtual theaters now. You can learn more at the official site.