Survival Skills (2020)

Survival Skills (2020) at Fantasia

There are few things more political than the police. This is especially true right now in the United States, where every week more phone or bodycam footage emerges showing the constabulary putting their knees on civilians’ throats, or simply shooting them dead, often with little more obvious cause than the colour of their victims’ skin or the arresting cops’ prejudice, lack of self-restraint and over-entitled sense of authority and empowerment. There are currently mass protests against such conduct occurring in multiple states of America, while the President exploits the damage left behind for photo ops that divide the country while protecting and serving his own political agenda.

The feature debut of writer/director Quinn Armstrong, expanded from his 2017 short film of the same name, Survival Skills is certainly concerned with the police, although it is has the triple-distancing effect of being set in the late Eighties (long before there were smart phones to record police misbehaviour), of unfolding in small, Reaganite, middle-class, middle-American Middletown (rather than in an urban hellhole), and of being a training video addressed specifically to the graduates of the local police academy.

This VHS film, complete with its wonky sets, 4:3 ratio and tracking issues, follows the first year in the field of rookie Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell), whose exploits are introduced, oriented and occasionally admonished by the Narrator (Stacy Keach). Jim seems the perfect cop – a stickler for the rules with a cheery nature and generous spirit, he cares deeply about the civilians he encounters, even supporting them with his own money and accommodation. In other words, he is a construct of the perfect policeman – and indeed in his first on-screen appearance, lo-fi special effects show him literally being put together limb by limb and given a name and identity as an officer of the law. Similarly, more than one of the people whom he meets nicknames him ‘Robocop’, in keeping with his aw-shucks enthusiasm for policing that never seems truly human. Jim is not only idealistic, but also idealised, and over the course of the video, his immaculate principles will be tested by an ever-encroaching, inescapable reality.

“Something we often forget is that police officers are real people with real lives,” says the Narrator, as he conjures for Jim “a life of his own”, including a suburban home with all the price-tagged mod cons, and an improbably devoted girlfriend Jenny (Tyra Colar). It all seems so picture perfect – to the degree that Jim’s older, more jaded partner Allison (Ericka Kreutz) is already sick of him at first sight. Jim’s first assignment – “the toughest there is”, as the Narrator observes – is a domestic violence case at the Jenning household. It is a case which will come to haunt Jim – for although he will at first seem unaffected by what he has seen, Jim will go on to devote much of his year trying naïvely to rescue Lauren (Madeline Anderson) and her stepdaughter Leah (Emily Chisholm) from Lauren’s clearly controlling, abusive husband Mark (Bradford Farwell). Here Jim’s adherence to the rules will come into conflict with his personal feelings, and the ensuing friction will be his gradual undoing.

As Jim disintegrates, so does the formal architecture of the film itself. The Narrator argues openly with his subject, and tries in vain to reverse (literally with the VCR’s rewind button) the dangerous road down which Jim is heading; other players admit to an awareness that they are mere side characters; the Narrator checks his script; Jim intrudes upon other police training videos; the robotic Jenny refers to her ‘scene’; and the camera pulls back to reveal the lights and crew around a set. With all this, the video is being unraveled and deconstructed before our very eyes, even as less cosy or instructive real-world events keep imposing themselves. That contrast between the video’s confected, simplified truth and the harsher reality beyond the frame is the dynamic that drives Survival Skills, tracing the film’s descent from comic pastiche to something altogether darker and bleaker. Much as Jim was assembled from his different parts at the beginning, now we watch him coming apart at the seams, as all the theory that he has acquired at the academy gives way to cruel praxis. 

After all the absurdist laughs at the start, Armstrong’s film takes an unexpectedly agonising downward turn into disillusionment and despair – exposing a policing system that destroys the lives of those on the inside as well as the outside. Even Mark Hadley’s score, electronic as is now de rigueur for any evocation of the Eighties, still manages to match the film’s tonal shifts, from silly artifice to affecting melancholy. And as Jim goes ‘way off-script’, all  Survival Skills‘ preposterous parodies suddenly become very political indeed.

Strap: Quinn Armstrong’s feature debut Survival Skills deconstructs the form of an Eighties training video to show the darker side of policing

© Anton Bitel