Survival Skills starts off with a rather unique conceit and then pushes it off into an unexpected direction, becoming one of the more unique and entertaining narrative experiences of the past several years.
The film starts off in black with a sound that will be familiar to those of us of a certain age – a VCR machine loading a tape for play. As the picture comes up, complete with all the low-definition video noise of a VHS tape played far too many times we all remember from that era, we find we are watching a police training video. The gruff Narrator (Stacey Keach) welcomes us to our new job as a rookie police officer and is going to show us the proper procedures for responding to certain types of calls, showing recreations of each with rookie Jim Williams (a scarily funny on-point Vayu O’Donnell) as our supposed surrogate for these situations. If anyone has ever sat through a training video for any type of job in the 1980s or 1990s, the format and set up here will feel very familiar. (And if it is not familiar, there is a whole subculture on YouTube dedicated to preserving these odd relics.)
The first example of a typical police call that Officer Jim is sent into is a domestic disturbance – a married couple having a rather heated argument with the possibility of impending violence. Officer Jim and his partner (a very nonplussed Ericka Kreutz) enter the home and work at calming the couple down. But for some reason, Officer Jim goes off script, literally, and begins taking an interest in the wife and the couple’s daughter, believing that they are in danger from the husband. This is against regulations, and his partner tells him so. As does the Narrator, who is growing increasingly frustrated that Jim is not doing what he is supposed to be doing in the training video. And things only go further off the rails from there.
While Survival Skills feels like Charlie Kaufman and mid-1990s David Lynch teamed-up to make an industrial education video, the film is actually from the mind of first time feature writer/director Quinn Armstrong. The basic concept may sound like a riff on the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez team-up double bill Grindhouse – in which the two directors created throwback style exploitation films – and their numerous imitators. But Armstrong is just using the industrial training video format as a springboard for the bigger story he is telling. Rather than just recreate the format, he uses the things inherit in old video tape such as tracking static and picture glitches as a way to impart story mood and even characterization. The film is unique package that is part drama, part dark comedy with a dash of horror tossed in for spice.
Honestly, this is one of those films where I don’t want to talk about it out too much. It keeps plenty of tricks up its sleeve, slowly dolling them out over its runtime, until the last ten to fifteen minutes, where it takes a sharp left turn that recontextualizes the whole previous hour in a startling way. Even now, I am a bit unsure if I have given too much of the movie away or not. But if you are someone who is open to a film that is an interesting and exciting experiment in narrative storytelling structure, than Survival Skills is definitely worth your time.