Survival Skills. 2020.
Directed & Written by Quinn Armstrong.
Starring Stacy Keach, Vayu O’Donnell, Spencer Garrett, Ericka Kreutz, Tyra Colar, Emily Chisholm, & Bradford Farwell.
Not Rated / 88 minutes
Drama / Horror / Thriller
DISCLAIMER: The following article contains SLIGHT SPOILERS!
Be warned. Or, be spoiled.
Where to start with director-writer Quinn Armstrong’s debut feature, Survival Skills?
On the one hand, any film in 2020 with a cop as the lead character may not be landing among the intended zeitgeist. I, for one, am not rushing to see stories about cops, definitely not sympathetic portrayals. Yet, here I am, writing about Armstrong’s film. And preparing myself to say a lot of things about the smart writing. Now, some of what I’ll write— or, maybe a lot— will be pure theory on my end, unintended by Armstrong. Either way, the film is an interesting gem, from its script to its style.
Armstrong plants us smack dab in the middle of a lost 1980s How-To video for training police officers. The Narrator (Stacy Keach) seems like a retired cop. He leads the viewer through various stages of police training while we follow Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell) in his early days on the job. What starts as a cheesy, hilarious parody of ’80s VHS culture and training videos soon begins to change into a narrative about Jim trying to help a potential victim of domestic violence, to the point he not only risks his job, he may also be risking his life.
There’s nothing to compare Survival Skills to— it’s in a league of its own. The closest comparison is Adult Swim’s short, This House Has People In It. Armstrong’s film is a heady mix of cheesy comedy, dark humour, and psychological thrills. It shouldn’t work, but does, and well. Survival Skills isn’t only a story about a cop who gets in over his head trying to help a victim the system can’t, or won’t, it’s a story about how even a so-called ‘good cop’ can’t do the right thing when they want to because the system was never designed to work for the most vulnerable in the first place.
On a surface level, Survival Skills is primarily a twisted parody of VHS-era training videos. Those of us who are old enough still remember these kinds of videos from fast food jobs and other places. There’s all the earnest cheesiness and repetition of core company values transplanted to the world of law enforcement. We get the grainy static, the messed up parts of tape. Keach’s narration is bread and butter because with that voice you really do believe he’s a retired cop handing down lessons. It’s O’Donnell who sells it best as the quintessential positive worker from these videos, always smiling, chatting people up, and giving a thumbs up occasionally to show his positive attitude. Underneath all the visual aesthetic harking back to the 80s is a deeper parody.
The film’s visually a parody of VHS-era training videos, and likewise a parody of cops as a societal institution. We see cops doing things typical of a racist police force, like Jim losing his cool and telling people to get a proper “American hobby.” Then there’s the typical blame game of police attributing social decay to “heavy metal concerts and abortion clinics.” Because it couldn’t be cops in the ’80s without at least a mention of the Satanic Panic that gripped Canada and the U.S. A ridiculous call to the cop shop sends Officer Jim to a house where he’s expecting ritual sacrifice, the murder of babies, and who knows what else. Except he barges in on three nerds arguing over the rules of Dungeons & Dragons. This whole thing works to perfection because there are Satanic Panic-era police training videos out there, like here, so the whole aesthetic of the video really takes us back into that world, crossing a sinister, ignorant piece of modern American history with a dose of riotous parody.
An already dark parody of cops eventually transforms into a genuinely chilling condemnation of policing. Jim attempts to resist the narrative of the police department through repeatedly trying to help the woman he believes is being abused. At one point, the Narrator forcefully pushes Jim to stop, repeating several times, more exasperated than the last: “And so Jim decided to head home.” Jim continues about his moral quest, no matter how hard the Narrator’s subtly trying to tell him it won’t work. He’s ultimately unable to change anything because the system will not allow it. Because with domestic violence, and generally with violence against women, unlike robbery or other crimes, there’s an insistence on laying all sorts responsibility on the victim’s doorstep. So even when a DV victim shows tell-tale signs of abuse, the cops act like their hands are tied until the woman makes a report. The police, as an institution, are only designed to do so much work for the victim, then they safeguard themselves by victim blaming: “She should have gotten a restraining order,” or “She should have done this, she should have done that.” Jim suffers the consequences of going against the system by actively attempting to help a victim beyond the system’s reach, getting figuratively chewed up and spat out by that very same institution of which he’s a loyal part.
And that’s the least of Jim’s worries.
Ronald Reagan’s presence in Survival Skills is more than 1980s set decoration. He’s on a wall in the background while the Narrator talks. Later, Jim actually brings a framed picture of Reagan to work for his desk like a normal person would do with a photograph of loved ones. Reagan actually works as symbol of police inefficacy in the face of domestic violence. When President Jimmy Carter was serving as POTUS he’d previously setup the Office of Domestic Violence. This office was later dismantled early into the Reagan administration— 1981, to be exact— due to conservative worries about so-called ‘social welfare programs’ and their supposed role in the breakdown of the family. Not only that, there’s the Reagan and the Family Protection Act (1981). This bill, among a bunch of other horrifying things, included a stipulation to repeal all federal laws protecting battered wives from their husbands. The bill didn’t make it through, though doesn’t change the fact it was supported by Reagan’s administration. So, on the surface, the system presents itself like it cares. It wants you to believe so badly that it cares. Underneath, the truth is it only does what’s absolutely necessary, nothing more, and this is how so many domestic violence cases slip through the cracks until a wife/girlfriend(etc) winds up murdered. It’s within this overall system that Jim attempts to do some good when, all along, it’s nothing but a futile gesture on his part.
“I was just trying to do the right thing”
Again, there’s something slightly odd for me personally about watching any cop fiction in light of the continued police brutality in 2020 against Black people in America. Every cop show or movie I’ve ever previously enjoyed I’m now interrogating via a new lens, seeking out the ‘copaganda’ and trying to parse how media’s influenced my own views about the police as a queer white man. From the minute I started screening Survival Skills I was hesitant to let myself get too deeply invested in Officer Jim Williams.
Then I found more meaning in the story than just watching the dark, unlucky tale of a cop trying to do good. Jim, in spite of his moral duty to help a victim of domestic violence, isn’t portrayed as a perfectly stand up guy, succumbing to the occasional American nationalism so prevalent in policing, and even sometimes using his power as an officer of the law in ways he should never wield it. He’s still the type so many cop supporters, and other cops, would call a ‘good apple.’
The entire point of Survival Skills, for me, is that we’re shown, via Jim and his resistance to the entire framing device of the VHS training video, how those ‘good apples’ aren’t capable of existing in the first place because the system itself is rotten to its core. To follow the metaphor, the system is tainted soil from which nothing good can grow, or, to riff off legal terms, cops themselves are literal fruit of the poisonous tree borne of a system meant only to serve those with power, whether it’s men, the rich, or white people— or, all of the above.