Survival Skills (2020) Kino Lorber 2/2/2021
Directed By: Quinn Armstrong
Starring: Stacy Keach. Vayu O'Donnell, Tyra Colar, Spencer Garrett, Emily Chisholm
Framed as a 80's era VHS training tape the film narrated by Stacy Keach (known any as The Narrator) introduces us to Jim (Vayu O'Donnell) a bright peppy 'every man' as we follow him through a year on the police force. The jolly optimistic man soon discovers that his job isn't all its cracked up to be in this savagely funny satire. On the surface Survival Skills is a very basic even thread bare plot -yet, its thanks to Quinn Armstrong's brilliant use of wit and white hot satire that it takes a just OK premise into a darkly funny and harrowing odyssey. By the end, the film had me shook and 'reeling' in the best possible way. I hate comparing other filmmakers to one another but in this case I couldn't help but feel like Armstrong was channeling the great Quentin Dupieux in terms of the surreal living comfortably right next to the real. Now, admittedly Survival is no where near as insane as a Dupieux outing yet it strikes just the right cord between weird, surreal and the heartbreaking real.
I love when a movie surprises this jaded critic and stuff like that deserves all of our praise. It's almost kind of hard to write a review for a film that just needs to be seen to be believed (and yes I know how corny and cliched that sounds) but its true. This is a comedy first and foremost but Quinn doesn't spare us on the bleak, depressing and harrowing aspects of Jim's job. It's not easy to balance comedy and dark subject matter yet thanks to a well structured and smartly written screenplay the two tones work in harmony. Besides a great script what really sells this film and its somewhat subtle sometimes not so subtle subtext is the actors. Stacy Keach, beloved cult star is so damned amazing in this (and really anything he does) and he brings the right amount of hammy and hard boiled to the role. Its a joy, nay, an honor to watch such artistry at work. Seriously, you have to be dead inside not to get excited when you see this gentlemen on screen. Playing our smiley peppy hero Jim is Vayu O'Donnell. O'Donnell brings a quiet dread, sympathetic, harrowing and above all funny performance. Like Keach, he knows the line between over-the-top and never actually skirts it, yet comes deliciously close. At the end my heart really bled for this character. Honestly, I could go on and on because everybody is so fantastic in this film. You have a genius script brought to life by its performers. This is even more incredible when you take a step back and realize that this is Quinn Armstrong's first feature, having previously worked on shorts (including a short based on this feature). The fact that this filmmaker already has these kinds of skills behind the camera makes me think, look out this filmmaker is going places. A darkly brilliant take down of Reagan era police-force that sticks with you long after its over.
Picture: Typically I always want the best picture quality. So, I was a tiny bit sad when Survival Skills came out on 780p DVD. However, thinking about it, I think it actually works well within the films low-fi aesthetic. In fact, I dont think I would want to see this film in a pristine 1080 or higher.
Sound: Survival Skills, has a skillfully done DTS 5.1 track. Dialogue comes through nicely with a good robust quality overall.
Extras: Domestic Violence and Law Enforcement Today: A Conversation with Neslie Akkol & Kassandra Villarreal of the Good Shepherd Shelter (8mins) A short featurette on real life abuse and violence situations. A really interesting, sobering and informative segment.
Getting the VHS Look (6min) the writer/director takes us through the process of getting the cool VHS look achieved in the film.
Survival Skills (Short) (8mins) The original short film that inspired the feature film.
Training Videos (5mins) A featurette featuring some wild real life police training videos.