James (Shane Land) and Wild Bill (Justin Armstrong) are stars of a survivalist reality show called Hiking Adventures. In their latest episode, the duo wanders the secluded forests of Oklahoma, looking for food, water and other opportunities to show off their survival skills to the camera. When they’re not filming, talk mostly centers around how drunk Wild Bill got the night before, and how badly he wants to get laid.
As filming continues, the two hosts find the woods are not as empty as they might have thought, as they come across a local, Earl (Terry Spector), and his home-schooled daughter Peggy (Audrey Elizabeth Evans) before also running into two women, Lori (Dana Wokas) and Jennifer (Bridgot Wolf). While Earl and Peggy are odd in their own backwoods kind of way, Lori and Jennifer are more the hosts’ speed, and as fans of Hiking Adventures, they’re likewise more than a little enamored back. And after filming wraps for the day, the two hosts get more than a little close and comfortable with their biggest fans. Which would be fine, except things are about to get disturbingly dangerous for our hiking couples.
Art of Survival is a film with many personalities, shifting tone in at least three major ways. For the first half of the film, the focus is on presenting the characters, and their hike, as if the audience is watching their TV show. We get close-ups as they explain different survival strategies, and see them set traps for food. We also get a fun device in the show’s commercial breaks, which is where we get the opportunity to first see the hosts as they are off camera, interacting with the sparse crew (who is only there for a few scenes; most non-filmed segments involve the crew far away at a base camp of some sort while the hosts “rough it”).
The tone shifts gear once Lori and Jennifer show up, and James and Jennifer pair off for a somewhat graphic sex sequence where the couple bares all while working through as many different sexual positions as they can think of. It’s nothing that hasn’t been seen in a late-night cable soft core flick, but considering the type of film leading into it, it’s a somewhat awkward change.
The final shift in tone occurs after the night of debauchery, when the couples become the prey of a local nutjob and the film starts to share more in common with Deliverance than reality TV or the skin flick it had just become. Three distinctly different flavors of film is a risky move on the filmmakers’ part, especially considering the last two shifts come in the final third of the film; for some it’ll work and for others it will be understandably a rough mix. I’m in the latter camp.
For the most part, I enjoyed the first half of the film. Sure, it’s like watching a decidedly more lo-fi version of a survival reality show, but that’s a testament to how great a job was done to set that mood. Everything down to sanitizing water to skinning rabbits got its due, and the hosts play their parts as expected. James is the more Nature-friendly, bug-eating sort, and Wild Bill is the unabashed carnivore. It works, and could’ve been pushed even more to be a satire on the reality TV subgenre, had that been of interest to the filmmakers.
Once the ladies arrive, it still works within the meta confines of the behind-the-scenes of a TV show, but the suddenly gratuitous nudity seems to come out of left field. Not that anyone is bad looking or anything like that, but, as you would suspect, it just feels like a different film. By the time the group starts getting harassed and violently stalked, it’s like the first half of the film never happened, and it becomes a survival thriller where nothing truly original or interesting happens.
Then again, I’m sure there are those out there that might feel the opposite, that the opening half is where the film truly suffers and things really pick up after the ladies arrive. I’d buy either argument, honestly, but that’s the rub; it feels like an either/or proposition, as all the tone shifts just don’t work together to form a cohesive whole. And I don’t know that the two main tone shifts needed to occur outside the show’s framework; imagine how fun it could’ve been had the events in the second half of the film been presented and commented on with the same flair as the TV show, omniscient narrator and all.
Overall, I think half of Art of Survival is a pretty good film, and the other half is a schizophrenic, confused muddle. For me, once the film seemed to forget about the reality TV show conceit, it became less interesting and more like so many other “folks in the woods being harassed by crazy locals” endeavors I’ve seen.
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