On one level, our days are a series of small decisions. We decide what to get for lunch, whether to skip the gym for happy hour, and which HBO series to begin. In the big picture, our days are a series of interactions. All manner of strangers, colleagues, and friends mold our experience. And no matter how we define our time, where we live is as important as the choices we make.
As its title indicates, Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st looks at a specific time and place, showing us how the city and its people churn forward. It also looks at the series of small decisions made by one man. The man is Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), and his choices have an additional level of significance sine he happens to be a recovering drug addict. While everyone goes through their day with relative comfort, Anders must always decide that he’s not going to use. This additional challenge makes it seem as if Anders has free will, and we worry for him. Trier sees recovery is a constant trial, and nonstop temptation gives his film a level of gnawing suspense.
Anders begins his day by attempting to kill himself. He puts stone into his pockets, holds a large one in his hands, and sinks into a lake. Agonizing moments pass before he returns to the surface, sobbing and gasping for air. Then a strange thing happens: he returns to his halfway house and jokes with a fellow addict. He meets with his supervisor, discusses a job interview, and heads to Oslo for the day. He never mentions the suicide attempt to anyone, including his best friend. Still, the attempt and his addiction hang over Anders’ every move. Everyone treats him with polite deference. When he confides in others, he sounds resigned and desperate. Sobriety has done nothing to end his addiction.
Oslo, August 31st could have been a tedious slice-of-life portrait. What makes it so compelling is Trier’s attention to detail and Lie’s confident performance. Anders does not exactly undergo character development; he begins depressed and his choices slowly take their toll. Voicemails to his ex-girlfriend, each more desperate than the last, become a barometer for his mental state. The key to the performance is his haunted eyes; in them we can see his pain as he alienates himself from those who are closest to him. Whether it’s with his friend or his potential future employer, he pushes away as soon as he confides. He does not want pity, exactly, although self-sabotage leaves him with fewer options.
In the periphery of Anders’ day, Trier populates Oslo with dozens of ordinary, happy people. Before we meet Anders, there is a beautiful, mood-setting prologue where Norwegians talk about what their city means to them. Some have fond memories, whereas others couldn’t stand the traffic. And while Anders is the common thread, the minor characters also have an opportunity for a small epiphany or two. His best friend talks about fatherhood with melancholy, self-deprecating humor. After he reconnects with old friends at a party, we hear one woman talk about how she now resents all her friends who have children. The camera focuses on these people like a close friend might: it zooms onto their faces, never judging but eager to listen.
Oslo, August 31st is too heartfelt to be depressing. It sees Anders and his city with warm clarity, even when his thoughts grow increasingly dark. Somehow, despite Anders’ sense of defeat, there are life-affirming moments where Oslo eclipses the single-mindedness of addiction. The final scenes are the most intimate ones in the film, and Trier regards Anders like a detached observer. Everyone’s day is a series of small decisions, Triers argues, and they culminate with vibrancy on a massive scale. The good news is that the world does not get smaller just because Anders chooses to disengage from it.