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‘Oslo, August 31st’ an honest, bleak, and emotional character study

Oslo, August 31st
Directed by Joachim Trier
Written by Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt
Norway, 2011

The awkwardness and pain a person can feel from forever being an outsider reverberates strongly in Oslo, August 31st, a Norwegian film that earns its dark emotions by never being excessively melodramatic. Director and co-writer Joachim Trier paints a bleak and honest portrait of a man who’s closer to a ghost than a living, breathing human, unsure of how to connect despite desperately reaching out to relate to anyone. Star Anders Danielsen Lie is able to get across a vast amount of emotions more with body language and facial expressions than with dialogue, centered around his character’s wounded history.

Lie plays Anders, a recovering drug addict preparing for a job interview in Oslo that may help him turn his life around. Anders ostensibly wants to rejoin the modern world, after being nearly a year sober thanks to intensive rehab. But he’s still in great pain, as we see in the opening minutes when he attempts (and fails) to commit suicide by drowning in a lake. Anders has friends he tries to reconnect with, yet he’s never truly able to articulate the hurt that radiates within him. Lie does an excellent job of portraying someone forced to go through the motions of acting normal. Throughout Oslo, August 31st, Anders pretends to be normal, swaying people to believe he’s changed from his addictive ways and that it’s made him a better, happier person; he doesn’t fully buy his transformation, so no one else can.

As a character study, both in-depth and intentionally a bit distant, Oslo, August 31st is powerful while keeping its audience at a remove, wanting us to feel like we can’t fully connect with Anders even if we share his general sense of struggle and guilt. Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt’s script is appropriately minimal, never engaging in over-the-top hand-wringing or bald-faced emotion from Anders. His issues, those he can’t fully express with those he encounters, are appropriately internal. In some strange way, if we knew every step of his past destructive patterns, Anders would become less evocative.

A standout scene, one that’s a perfect encapsulation of Anders’ strife and self-loathing nature, is the job interview that’s meant to be the purpose of his Oslo trip. If he gets the job, he’ll just be an editorial assistant, but even this menial work could change Anders’ life for good. However, he’s unable to be honest without being self-hating, and the way the interview turns on a dime and his tightly wound self-fury is striking. In this scene and elsewhere, Lie’s performance is modulated well. Even though we only learn so much about Anders, Lie makes him feel fully realized.

Because of how Trier and Vogt structure the script of Oslo, August 31st, Lie is the most consistent presence on screen, anchoring the film in an understated fashion, to the point where most of the other performers are fine, but don’t leave as powerful an impression. Perhaps most memorable is Hans Olav Brenner, as Thomas, an old friend of Anders. Anders and Thomas have an extended heart-to-heart before the interview, and the chemistry the two actors have in creating a real, if troubled and recently delayed, friendship sells the sequence immensely.

Trier is a more potent writer than director, but that only means his direction isn’t overly flashy or stylish. He utilizes hand-held camerawork frequently, but never where it’s distracting or nauseating. The camera is just observing Anders, documenting his every move, almost to a point where you forget it’s there. While the imagery Trier presents isn’t often memorable—an exception being the shot where Anders tries to kill himself in the beginning—his work is fittingly naturalistic and relatable.

Oslo, August 31st works almost specifically because it’s subtle, because it never aims to be outrageous or over-the-top in its unfiltered look at a man who believes he’s beyond hope. Anders Danielsen Lie is given a massive burden as an actor, but rises to the challenge. Watching a person who’s spiraled out of control, looking for something to lift him back from the breach, is excruciating, but the way in which Joachim Trier and Lie present this man’s battle is powerful in a way that doesn’t make the film feel like an epically rough 90 minutes. Sometimes, being honest in presenting emotion is what matters most, as it does in Oslo, August 31st.

Josh Spiegel