Police culture and the place that police play in our larger society is, to put it mildly, a subject on a lot of people’s minds right now. It is a complicated topic, one that has led to massive protests, both for decreased and increased police power. It is certainly an area rife for sharp, satirical examination, which is precisely why writer-director Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills was one of my most anticipated films of Nightstream. Unfortunately, it takes a topic that is waiting for a deep critical reading and instead mostly scratches the surface, preferring to play with form than to really engage with its subject matter in a challenging or thought-provoking way.
Survival Skills (which is a feature-length expansion of a short also by Armstrong) presents itself as a training video for new police officers, to assist them in knowing necessary skills to make it through their first year on the force. This is told through the character of Jim Williams, played with practiced stiffness Vayu O’Donnell. The framework for the film is that we are learning important police skills through watching Jim, and over time the wheels start to come off.
Except the wheels are never fully on. The Narrator, played with chompy excess by Stacy Keach, introduces us both to Jim and the world of “Middletown”, a suburban community in Washington state that “Voted overwhelmingly for Reagan in 1988.” Jim is literally created before our eyes, and speak and acts like Data from Star Trek: Next Generation. Long, overblown explanations, operating within set guidelines. The juxtaposition is that most everyone around Jim is not at the same level; Jim is artificial, and seems to be playing against an authentic world. The people around him cynical and curse and generally aren’t playing along with the simulation. A few characters, such as his manufactured girlfriend and a praising police chief, seem in on the act. But the majority of the world seems unaware they are part of a training video.
The conflict of the story comes when Jim’s first assignment as a police officer is to a domestic violence dispute between married couple Leah and Mark, and he suspects there is more going on than either side of the marital argument are willing to admit. With the addition of a teenager in the home, he wants to do something about it. But when the wife refuses to press charges, Jim is left with the moral conflict of if he does the right thing despite it being against regulation, or does he simply look away?
The rest of the movie rotates around this core conflict: does Jim break regulation to intervene, even if systems are in place to make it very difficult for Leah or her daughter to escape an abusive situation. The training video pushes to gently suggest at first and then force Jim to walk away from the situation, seemingly manipulating reality around him to make it impossible for him to save these people. In the meanwhile, he is forced to do things like break up D&D games and take assault from motorists. The film is not necessarily sympathetic in it tone towards police organizations, but is certainly sympathetic to individual police officers who want to do more in a broken system that doesn’t protect the most vulnerable.
There are two key issues with Survival Skills. The first is that the premise of being a self-aware training video wears out its bag of tricks relatively quickly; I can believe that it was previously a short film, as it feels akin to the late night Adult Swim horror films that would air in the middle of the night and not necessarily warn you that they were in fact going to become increasingly unsettling. But because Survival Skills is longer than those short experiments, it has to constantly push the boundaries of its premise. The D&D scene I alluded to earlier is a good example of this; it is clearly meant to mock 80s Satanic panic that surrounded the world’s most popular roleplaying game, but the sequence doesn’t go anywhere especially interesting and ultimately feels like filler that then loops back into the main plot. The core story is good enough, but it’s a bit thin, even when the run time is a slim 82 minutes.
The other issue is…all the police stuff. Police training, the kind that is nominally being parodied here, is among the most hot button issues in regards to the need for police reform at the moment. Hyper aggressive police training has generated a mentality around policing culture and policy that it is a survive or die profession. But Williams is presented in the film as ineffectual because he is too tied to protocol and procedure. The thing Jim is ultimately punished for trying to do good in a system that refuses him any course of direct action. His wants to do more but his hands are tied, when conversations around police reform often decry how cops have too much available authority. In the way that Survival Skills attempts to parody police training, it’s subtext reinforces the worst lessons that cops are being taught currently, that their job is inherently dangerous and they need to be ready to act at a moment’s notice.
The film has moments of actually tackling police reform topics in a more direct fashion; one intentional tangent depicts a police officer breaking up a protest and suggesting that deadly force may be necessary given the circumstances. But before it can really dwell on the horror of police taking violent authority into their own hands actually details, it literally scans away from the moment and returns to Jim.
If Jim is a hero or not is something that the film wrestles with. The muddied sense of reality doesn’t make it any easier to sort out. Characters will occasionally break the fourth wall, especially Keach’s intentionally menacing narrator. But the soft line between what is real and what is artificial makes it hard to get your arms around what exactly Armstrong is driving at. It is entirely possible that on a meta level, Survival Skills is an intentional depiction of the sort of avenging force that some cops sometimes believe themselves to be, and the horror is meant to be derived from seeing someone who believes in the system being driven to the only course they see available to themselves. But if that is the intent, the movie never quite sticks the landing, making a muddled series of socially aware but not especially socially mature statements. There is still an interesting movie on the margins of Survival Skills, but the execution is too muddy for a topic as critical as this in our current climate.