Bizarre, disturbing, and unpleasant, “Survival Skills” is the type of movie that will have you checking your watch every five minutes. It’s what I like to call an “audience alienator,” a film that creates a massive divide between those who passionately love it and those who fiercely hate it, and still manages to leave a smattering of viewers somewhere in the middle.
Presented as a vintage police officer training video from the 1980s (complete with all the wrinkles and static of an old VHS cassette tape), the movie is a satire of the educational films that are still required viewing for some professions (including law enforcement officers), and a fiery commentary on our broken justice system. When considering the timeliness of the themes, it’s an in-your-face, fiery commentary on our broken justice system and the people who are trained to be terrified of every suspect to the point that they think that shooting an unarmed person multiple times in the back is not only warranted, but also reasonable.
Fresh out of the police academy Jim (Vayu O’Donnell) is the “star” of his very own real-life training course, where he learns the day to day lessons of being a good officer. A naive rookie cop with an idealized view of his new profession, Jim learns how to deal with the public he’s sworn to protect by watching an instructional video. With a narrator (Stacy Keach) keeping him on track throughout his lessons, things go well as long as Jim follows his instructions. But when he is defiant and ignores what the narrator tells him to do, the results are disastrous.
It starts with a domestic dispute call on his first day on the job, then another to the same residence a few days later. Sensing something is wrong, Jim feels like he has to take action to help the woman and her daughter escape an abusive situation, even though it’s not allowed. He’s a man who truly wants to do good and starts out with the most noble of intentions, but he takes things too far in his quest to do the right thing.
Writer / director Quinn Armstrong presents a brazen critique of the corruption and toxic culture present in some law enforcement organizations, with uncomfortable humor about trigger-happy cops and abstract ideas that are sometimes painful to confront (but something we as a society must collectively do). The film is too experimental (and could perhaps be seen as too controversial) to reach a wide audience, but it has important things to say. Once the story gets going, it’s relentless.
“Survival Skills” is unlike any movie you’ve seen before, and it will speak to liberal-minded viewers. It’s chilling to watch as Jim’s demeanor drastically changes, as kindness and empathy turn to aggression as he is slowly corrupted by power and authority — two things that are emphasized in his training video. Knowing the same techniques parodied here actually are still being taught to law enforcement officers today is shameful.