At this year’s Fantasia Film Festivals, filmmakers were intent on reflecting the anger and dread of our current times. Festival films like The Dark and the Wicked, Unearth, Undergods, Lapsis, and Sleep showed us a world in decay, overcome with environmental and societal rot. In a politically tense year, it seems like every film festival is grappling with the unknowable future of a society in flux. But, of all the films, Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills and Orson Oblowitz’s The Five Rules of Success feel the most relevant to the times we’re living in. Both films are examinations of a broken criminal justice system that trains law enforcement to be inhumane and, by extension, teaches the world to be inhumane to incarcerated people.
Survival Skills tells the story of Jim (Vayu O’Donnell), a well-meaning purposefully generic cop oddly invested in kindness and justice. The framework is a training video hosted by The Narrator (Stacy Keach) who is using Jim as an example of the idea cop for the purposes of making the police look friendly and rule-abiding. He is given a home, girlfriend (Tyra Colar), and demeanor of a Ken doll, living a simple plastic life. And then, he gets his first call on the job: a sobering domestic violence situation. Faced with the thought of a mother and daughter being in danger, he immediately wants to go off-book. His more seasoned partner Alison (Ericka Kreutz), quickly reminds him of the rules, but Jim, burdened by empathy, pushes forward without following them. He proceeds to do everything within his power to help Leah (Emily Chisholm) and Lauren Jenning (Madeline Anderson) get away from domineering patriarch Mark (Bradford Farwell).
Things quickly go awry, with Jim losing his girlfriend, respect from the police chief (Spencer Garrett), and eventually his mind, as he quickly becomes aware that the criminal justice system doesn’t actually work. Jim’s failings can mainly be attributed to his refusal to allow bureaucracy to get in the way of doing what he believes to be right. And the main problem is… he is right. The system is wrong and it’s not designed to protect people, especially not women. Despite this, the narrator spends most of his time taunting Jim for the strength of his conviction and how it leads him to forgo police procedure with good intentions, only to fail miserably. By the end, Survival Skills is a nightmarish vision of our society as it is–sick, broken, and littered with the many shattered hearts of people who used to believe in it. This presentation of the world is bolstered by a Lynchian directing style blending both 50s retro and horror aesthetics, pieced together in a unique vintage 90s VHS looks reminiscent of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers. Cinematographer Allie Schultz places us into a plastic world then slowly reveals to us that is a perfect mirror to the one we will in.
The Five Rules of Success has a more contemporary look to it, with close shots and dramatic angles that wouldn’t be out of place in a first-person video game. And yet this glossy style works for the bleakness of this story about a young Latino ex-con trying to rejoin the world after spending his adolescence incarcerated. Our hero, referred to only as X (Santiago Segura), leaves prison hopeful for the feature. He quickly finds employment as a dishwasher at a restaurant, owned by a seemingly kind old man (Roger Guenveur Smith) who expresses faith in him. Though is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken, bespectacled man, he constantly finds himself on the receiving end of harassment, anger, and lunacy from the people around him. The worst comes him his sociopathic parole officer, who alternates between coming on to him in a sexually aggressive manner and asserting her power over him with stunts like making him pee in from of her and harassing him with a gun.
Soon X becomes fed up with the abuse and slow cashflow from the restaurant and turns to crime. Despite the ease in which X carries out his illegal actions, there’s a palpable sense of hesitation and dread in his movements. We feel how much he doesn’t want to be seen as or act as a criminal. We see also the many ways that people take advantage of him with loaded threats of sending him back to prison. Eventually, his boss begins to join in on the cruelty when X confronts him about his troubled son (Jonathan Howard). The tragedy of the film is a commonplace one: Our society puts people of color in the prison system at young ages, robbing them of their lives the opportunity to build lasting, supportive relationships. Then they are released into a world that has already made its mind up about them, pushing them into poverty and holding their voting rights hostage. X is never given the opportunity to truly be free, making his desperate grabs for stability justified. Furthermore, the prison system encourages us all to be villains, ostracizing people that need our help the most.
Both The Five Rules of Success and Survival Skills reveal to us that the system isn’t broken–it’s working as designed, and that design was always based in leaving the most vulnerable among us with no legal recourse to maintain their homes, lives, and relationships. Police procedure didn’t help Jim save those abuse survivors because it wasn’t made with them in mind. The parole system didn’t put X on the right path because it’s really just another state-sanctioned jail cell. The films remind us that many rules are designed to be unjust, so the only way forward is to start breaking them.