Survival Skills takes the standard internal training video and, quite literally, gives it a new life. Following Officer Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell) in his first year of training, the film takes the horror elements not from supernatural elements but instead from the system’s mundane horrors. Jim goes on house calls, takes mundane calls, and largely tries to help those who cross his path truly. Despite the presence of a narrator (Stacy Keach), the film slowly flows away from the central gimmick, and quite honestly, it’s for the better. If you go into Survival Skills expecting some genre experience that would evoke Adult Swim’s Informercials or another experimental genre fare, you’re setting yourself up for a completely different experience.
To say too much of Survival Skills would rob the film of its punch, but the story’s unfurling is deliberately slow. To be a police officer isn’t all explosions and knife combat. It’s largely the smaller and personal stories. It’s through those mundane stories that writer/director Quinn Armstrong truly thrives. Armstrong makes such great efforts to spend time giving humanizing touches to the police tape’s deliberately two-dimensional characters, and it truly pays off. The weaving of the narrative through the gimmick of the VHS tape is inspired, and quite often only asserts itself when it knows moviegoers have fallen under the spell of Jim Williams and his small-town life.
Regardless of any current discourse regarding the American police system, Survival Skills still manages to find empathy for the jaded men and women in blue. It’s a slow burn of the highest order, but it’s hard not to get invested. It’s listening to a friend tell you of a horror story at work, and as they tell the tale, they plant the seeds of hindsight. It’s being chilled to the bone when the story unfolds exactly as expected and knowing there was nothing you could do to stop it.
Reviewed by Cassie Jo Ochoa