What if I told you that a movie about a recovering heroin addict is one of the year’s most life-affirming films? But that’s the unlikely case with Oslo, August 31st, the riveting, present-tense Norwegian drama screening this weekend at the Bill Cosford Cinema and the Miami Beach Cinematheque.
The sophomore feature by director/coscreenwriter Joachim Trier, one of the most memorable selections at this year’s Miami International Film Festival, can’t be bothered to wallow in misery and self-pity like so many other junkie tales. It’s got a very specific agenda: to examine the emotional toll of substance abuse, not as a societal ill, but as a fragile state of being. “It’s not about heroin, not really,” Trier’s deeply conflicted protagonist insists at the beginning of the film, and he is correct. This is a portrait of dependency from the inside out, not the other way around. It’s a goal the film accomplishes with such non-judgmental immediacy and bracing lack of compromise that other forays into coping with drug addiction feel hopelessly pedestrian by comparison.
Anders (the astounding Anders Danielsen Lie), whip-smart and reasonably good looking, appears to have a promising future ahead of him. The 34-year-old journalist has been clean and sober for ten months now. He was even able to line up a job interview two weeks shy of the end of his rehab stint. This gangly fellow with the close-cropped hair is also a suicidal wreck. There he is at the beginning of the film’s 24-hour span, stuffing rocks down his pockets and wading into a river like Virginia Wolff in The Hours.
The facility’s administrator, blissfully unaware of that morning’s little stunt, sees no reason why Anders should miss his appointment with a magazine editor, so he grants his patient a day’s leave. It’s not like he’s fallen off the wagon. What could possibly go wrong? Off he goes to the film’s titular city, and the familiar landmarks that greet his arrival echo Oslo’s opening sequence, in which home videos and archival footage accompany voiceover accounts of participants at a rehab session. This mosaic of anecdotes is Trier’s way of introducing us to the role that the past plays in Anders’ story.
Even though the actual job interview is a pivotal scene, Trier appears to be more interested in Anders’ interaction with the people in his life whom he seeks out over the course of the day. He might have been gone less than a year, but it feels like an eternity has passed. His old college buddy Thomas (Michael Shannon lookalike Hans Olav Brenner) seems to have settled into a stable but somewhat stifling family-man routine. The two intellectuals’ meandering banter, which they begin in Thomas’ kitchen and continue through an extended walk in the park, feels lived-in and authentic. Resentments bubble to the surface, and Anders bristles at Thomas’ attempts to put a positive spin on his outlook. Optimism is shot down at nearly every turn by Anders’ self-loathing and low self-esteem. The friends’ fairly brief but potent encounter never strikes a false note. It could have made a fantastic short film about former classmates taking wildly divergent life journeys.
The most captivating sequence in the daytime portion of Oslo, August 31st occurs at a crowded café. Anders desires peace and quiet but can’t help eavesdropping on the banal conversations surrounding him. Two young women sitting nearby are looking at a laptop, and one of them recites the contents of her bucket list. We sense Anders’ inner struggle as he takes in this litany of frivolity, and suddenly we’re seeing the world through his eyes. What’s to become of this outsider whose sister is so estranged that she sends her on again/off again girlfriend to meet him for lunch?
As he did in his debut feature Reprise, Trier displays an innate understanding of what makes young intellectuals tick. Unlike the filmmaker’s previous effort, which relied heavily on his virtuoso mastery of technique, Trier dials down the stylistic calisthenics and follows his leading man with an unobtrusive mixture of handheld camerawork and more fluid tracking shots. Working with screenwriting partner Eskil Vogt, Trier has loosely based Oslo in French author Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1931 novel Le feu follet (The Fire Within), which director Louis Malle (Jules and Jim) adapted in 1963. Trier’s approach is both timeless and refreshingly modern. It suggests The Lost Weekend as reimagined by Richard Linklater in Before Sunrise mode.
“I’m a spoiled brat who fucked up,” Anders laments. Throughout this gripping junkie travelogue, Trier demonstrates that this unstable would-be 12 stepper is a lot more than this disparaging generalization. Night eventually falls in Oslo, and it puts Anders to the ultimate test of his willpower and resolve. The film is a tour de force for its director, but he ultimately places the bulk of the narrative on Danielsen Lie’s lanky shoulders. The actor comes through with a nuanced portrayal that vacillates between ambivalence and certitude, quite frequently in the same scene.
Performances in low profile indie releases, even as accomplished as Oslo, August 31st, are often overlooked during year-end honors. Don’t let this star turn slip through the cracks. The same goes for the exceptional film surrounding it. Bleak subject matter, you say? There’s no denying that Oslo takes viewers to some very dark places, but the insights it yields and the understated poetry of its images prevent the movie from indulging in facile pessimism. It’s too astute to take the easy way out.