Oslo, August 31st is Joachim Trier's second feature film and a huge step forward both in story and filmmaking. Trier's first film, Reprise (2006), was also set in Oslo and while charming at parts, is absent the depth and stark reality of our new protagonist's life.
Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is muddling through a long tenure in rehab. He is not a picky addict; cocaine, ecstasy, alcohol, and above all, heroin, frequently found their way into his system. Early in the morning, after 10 long rehab months, Anders purposefully walks down to a lake, fills his pockets with rocks (reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's suicide choice), and shuffles boldly under the water only to resurface a few seconds later sans rocks. Today is the day of Anders's long wait to briefly re-enter society. He earns a day pass from the facility and ventures back into Oslo for the sole purpose of a job interview but has wider plans including reunions with old friends and more worrisome, old tempters.
At 34, Anders is far past the age where recreational drug use was experimental. There are subtle hints and reminders that Anders was also a low-level dealer and funneled a significant amount of money away from his parents to fund his habit. Anders first picks his way to the home of his old friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner). Thomas now represents everything Anders is not and Anders makes no mistake in noticing it. Thomas has a home, a wife, two children, and a cushy job in obscure academia. Anders has absolutely nothing except a crushing mountain of debt, an estranged girlfriend, and wary acquaintances who at one time were probably his friends.
In one stark scene, Thomas points out how empty his life is. While outsiders may be jealous of him on the outside looking in, his life is actually hollow and draining. He and his wife no longer have sex, they do not go out anymore choosing instead to play video games, and he is woefully behind in his academic duties. This is a sly reference to Trier's previous film, Reprise, where a character in a juicy monologue opines how females will eventually sap a man's soul of all invigorating motivation. There will be no new reading, no new music, and no new ideas because the female by his side will stifle all creativity. Yes, this is a ridiculously obtuse argument, and the character spouting it ends up contradicting himself in the most blatant of ways, a lavish wedding. Anders is living proof that even with women in his life at all, he is certainly not reading, writing, or engaging in any culturally-minded activities. The drugs have seen to that.
Other than heroin, which is ever-present at the forefront of Anders's mind, suicidal thoughts are right behind it. It is only through his life choices and actions that Anders ends up where he is now. Nobody else is at fault and Anders is well aware of this as he meanders around Oslo observing all of the people and their stations in life. They have friends, family, relationships, jobs, and purposes; Anders has absolutely nothing. Anders Danielsen Lie played Philip, a main character in Reprise, who lapsed into psychosis over his OCD obsession with his girlfriend. Anders could easily be Philip five years later after a severe downward spiral into drugs and mayhem.
It is a guessing games as to whether or not Anders is revisiting his old life to say goodbye one last time or is just testing himself to see if he could tentatively reintroduce himself to his past as his new present and sober self. Choices are made, friends are re-visited, and a sense of inevitability surrounds Anders. Danielsen Lie is very good as Anders, quite stoic, matter-of-fact, and lugging around so much baggage about what might have been had he not succumbed to his demons he is nailed to the floor. Anders used to be a decent writer before it all unravelled but cannot imagine sitting down to compose an original thought now, too much has happened.
The film is aptly named because it takes place in 24 hours, from sunrise to sunrise. Effective camera work shows off Oslo's notable sights and worse, Anders's memories. Joachim Trier is Danish, but he is setting himself up to be one of Oslo's greatest cheerleaders since he has spent two films now firmly rooted to its location. Anders meets a girl at a party and they engage in what could be a promising beginning, a fresh start. However, Anders has had one too many fresh starts and he knows it. He is the only author of his life and only he knows its ending.