NIGHTSTREAM REVIEW: ‘Survival Skills’ (2020) is an Eerily Relevant Satire of the Police

Rating: 3.5 out of 4.

“In spite of limitations created by the film’s premise, it’s hard to hate the film’s uniquely stylish presentation.”

Presented as a police training video from the 1980’s, Survival Skills (2020) is a topical satirical look at the United States police force, exploring the preparation (or lack thereof) that cops are given before heading out into the real world. The film, which had a late night screening at NIGHTSTREAM on October 9th, is presented through the eyes of an eager new recruit by the name of Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell) and tells a tale of disenchantment. Reflecting reality, any attempt by the police in the film to help those that they are meant to protect is met with an increasing number of obstacles and red tape. Although the film was conceived well before the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, or the ensuing 2020 resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in America, its relevance to modern day issues is no mere coincidence. Instead, Survival Skills shines a light on issues with the police force that have continued to plague this country for centuries.

Although the film’s police-driven satire is eerily relevant to this year’s social unrest, born from the institution’s history of racial profiling and discrimination, Survival Skills focuses its attention on an entirely different matter – that of domestic violence. Through our main character, we are witness to a domestic violence incident that clearly troubles him and continues to trouble him throughout the film’s first half. We then eventually get to see Jim deal with one such case head-on, and watch his frustration as he slowly begins to realize that it will be much tougher for the victims to break free of their dire situation than he had initially assumed. In its tongue-in-cheek way, the film presents what is an unfortunate reality for many real life victims of domestic violence. The community is not there for them, nor are the public institutions meant to serve them, and they are left with very little options of where to go and what to do.

For all that Survival Skills does right in its representation of a broken system, however, it must be said that the film itself does fall under the umbrella of “copaganda.” 

The term copaganda, a portmanteau of the words “cop” and “propaganda,” found new life on social media this past year as people began rightfully criticizing a number of popular films and television shows that cast police officers as their likable protagonists. The most notable of these was Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013 – ), a show often lauded by fans for its direct address of the issues of racial profiling and police brutality, but which nonetheless contributes to an approachable, “goofball” image of officers. In a similar fashion, Survival Skills sympathizes with its cop protagonist and his coworkers, highlighting the toll their job takes on them and their perception of humanity as well as presenting Jim as a model “good cop” throughout the film’s narrative. It’s clear that Quinn Armstrong’s heart was in the right place when he wrote the script, as it does directly address a number of issues within the American police force, but the film’s premise creates an inherently tricky situation in terms of its perspective that is never really resolved in a satisfying way. The victims of domestic violence, for example, are side characters in the film used to bring light to an issue more than they are active participants in their own case.

In spite of the limitations created by the film’s premise, however, it’s hard to hate the film’s uniquely stylish presentation. Corrupted video tape and scan lines throughout the film add validity to the idea that Survival Skills is an 80’s training video while also acting as stylish visual cues for the story’s real life horrors, and Jim’s unnervingly chipper demeanor makes for a fun character type to corrupt over the course of the film. The writing is appropriately witty, and the narrative constructed in an appealing and easy to follow way. It may not be the perfect film in terms of the way it chooses to handle its serious subject matter, but Survival Skills nonetheless presents a very entertaining and refreshingly original film concept.

Director: Quinn Armstrong
Michael Orion Downing, Colin West
Cast: Stacy Keach, Vayu O’Donnell, Spencer Garrett, Ericka Kreutz […]
Release Date: 2020

Header Image Courtesy of Disappointment Media.