Intimate almost to the point of being deeply uncomfortable and depressing, director Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st places a flawed human face on drug rehabilitation to create a true sense of aimlessness and despair. Far from being a feel good film by any stretch, this harrowing look at one day in the life of an aging addict without a clue of how to get his life together and a deep, soul crushing sense of regret resonates far after the final credits.
Anders, a 34 year old Norwegian, is approaching the end of an extensive ten month long drug rehabilitation program secluded in the middle of the country. While there, all he can understandably fixate on was just how badly he screwed up, how terrified he is of relapsing, and how at his age starting from scratch would be a terrible idea. By his own admission he was “a spoiled brat who fucked up.”
Anders is played by Anders Danielsen Lee in a positively revelatory performance that makes the audience care for him within seconds. Before we know the true nature of his past, he’s already trying to weigh himself down with rocks and boulders in a creek to kill himself. The reason? He’s dreading being forced into going back to Oslo for a full day leave to complete a job interview for an editorial position at a publication and having to face people that he would rather avoid. Lee plays Anders as a man who isn’t the twitchy recovering addict charicature. In fact, Anders is far too calm; most of his outward rage replaced by a deep inner sadness that makes him appear like he’s on emotional life support. Anders as played by Lee seems almost convinced that any sign of emotion will lead to an immediate relapse, which at this point he just might welcome in some sick way because it would either kill him or force him to feel something for a change.
It’s in his interactions with people that Trier (no real relation to Lars) lays bare the problems of his main character. In an almost vertite style of extreme close ups and fast edits that cut off any unnecessary diagetic sounds no matter how pleasing they might seem to the audience, the director and actor thrust us into a world of deeply seeded shame and malaise. Anders listens to other people’s conversations and since his depression leads to a strange form of paranoia, he’s always mentally trying to connect everything he hears back to his own life. Talk of suicide makes him think of suicide and happy memories being read off a computer screen from one friend to another only reinforces his feelings that he’s wasted his life. Every time Anders seems to have found someone he can talk to at great length or a potentially kindred spirit, his crippling self esteem issues push him back even further, and when he’s ultimately let down by the friends and family he counted on the most, it makes his inevitable backslide all the more poignant and understandable. These little touches are what set this film apart from the pack of other recovery narratives. It’s never big and showy. It’s so intimate and small that it almost feels acutely perverse to watch it.
His best friend is an aloof intellect with a wife and child, but he isn’t necessarily uncaring. His parents are keeping their distance, but are willing to sell their family home to help him get better. Some of his friends are still drinking and doing drugs, and while they don’t pressure him explicitly they act as the devils on his shoulder. The biggest affront of all probably comes from his sister, who stands him up for lunch out of fear and sends her girlfriend instead for one of the most brutally awkward scenes of cinema this year.
Trier and Lee are bringing up some extremely interesting points about the nature of addiction and recovery here that extends not only to drug addicts, but also to the chronically depressed. This is a film about a man who has to ask himself if he is trying to get better for himself or if he’s trying to get better to gain sympathy from those around him so he can forgive himself. Much like an addict, Anders journey begins as one seeking forgiveness, but can one truly forgive others before they forgive themselves? Oslo, August 31st tries to tackle that question, but it never tries to answer it. This film is designed to spark a dialogue among those who watch it, and while some might balk at the ambiguity and documentary style it’s made with, it’s a good one to have, especially from a film that in lesser hands could’ve easily been an after school special.