The Survivors

The Survivors. Rastar Films 1983.

Before watching the movie:

It’s almost certainly just the snow and the 80s design aesthetic, but the poster makes me think of Spies Like Us a lot more than I should be.

Basically, these two New Yorkers lose their jobs the same week and their personality clash as they keep running into each other escalates to absurdity. Matthau and Williams may not seem compatible, but the central conceit is that they’re not compatible, so this could be a peanut butter and chocolate kind of combination.

After watching the movie:

Donald Quinelle, laid off corporate executive, and Sonny Paluso, disenfranchised gas station franchisee, happen to be in the same diner when a masked gunman enters and orders everyone in the restaurant to undress. Donald intercedes for Sonny, and a scuffle ensues in which Donald is shot in the shoulder and Sonny gets a look at the robber’s uncovered face. Donald inadvertently identifies Sonny on the news, and the robber, Jack Locke, comes to kill Sonny. Luckily enough, Donald comes over just at that time and they’re able to overpower Jack and bring him to the police On the way, Donald gets a taste of the power holding Jack’s gun gives him, and quickly gets sucked into not only buying out armories, but going to an expensive survival camp that promises to teach him to “be a real man”. Jack gets out of prison on bail, Donald’s training is worthless and he doesn’t realize it, and Sonny just wants everything to go back to normal and everyone to be safe.

This was a lot more dark and grounded than it was marketed. Donald gets on Sonny’s nerves, but they become friends anyway, forced to care about each other by their circumstances. I was completely failing to get how being pursued by an “unemployed hit man” fit with “declaring war on each other” because it doesn’t. It’s a more complicated plot that doesn’t condense easily.

I think the two are meant to be co-protagonists, but Sonny quickly becomes the viewpoint character, as the more grounded of them. Donald, being played by Robin Williams, starts out a little deranged and soon goes off the deep end, to the point of being brainwashed by the camp, and Sonny is the sensible one trying to rein him in. It’s not just that the actors are on different wavelengths, they’re both playing characters that are well-suited for them and the story takes Donald way out of relatability pretty quickly, arguably becoming a comedy deuteragonist, so I think the casting was apt.

The story goes into such unusual directions that it passes through at least two different places it feels like it could end and then takes strange left turns. The villain changes in the middle of the third act. Ultimately the story reaches its final ending and still it keeps going for a little while, before ultimately arriving on an emphatically unresolved resolution where nothing is really okay, but that’s okay.

This is a fun, dark, strange movie with an unlikely pair of actors playing an unlikely pair of characters. It more or less seems to accomplish what it sets out to do, but has some pretty weird ideas about what it should do. As much as it’s possible to star Robin Williams and not be a Robin Williams vehicle, this is definitely a Walter Matthau movie.

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