Director: Joachim Trier
Runtime: 95 minutes
I've been eager to follow director Joachim Trier's burgeoning career ever since I saw his wonderful debut, Reprise, roughly four years ago. Time came and went, and then finally word of Trier's sophomore feature film emerged. Trier spent five years writing his feature debut, so perhaps I should have been prepared for something of a wait. Thankfully, after his time away prepping his next film, the director has delivered another accomplished, quietly affecting work that further establishes Trier as a major talent, even though it doesn't reach the same highs as his debut.
For Oslo, August 31st's biggest strength and flaw comes from its deceptive simplicity. Set over the course of 24 hours, Trier's film follows recovering addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie, one of the leads in Reprise) as he journeys to Oslo reconnect with friends before heading off to a job interview. As in Reprise, Trier opens the film with a brief glimpse of urban Norway, before plunging into the more intimate and specific details of his characters. And frankly, there's not that much on paper that's terribly surprising. Anders reunites with friends and former girlfriends, with some encounters ending well, and others less so (Trier smartly lets the major conversations end in an emotional grey area).
Yet where Oslo finds its strength is in the particulars of the writing, along with Trier's subdued direction and some strong performances. Each conversation opens up intriguing little pathways into the characters and their past lives. Anders is, without question, the film's only true protagonist, but when Trier expands the film's scope to include Anders' relationships with friends in the past and present, Oslo starts to take flight. Unfortunately, the film peaks somewhat early, after a lengthy series of scenes between Anders and his close friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner). This is the story's most richly thought out and detailed relationship, and once the pair part ways, the film enters a bit of a lull (though it is certainly livened up by the uncomfortable job interview sequence). Trier keeps his actors grounded in naturalism without letting them slide into mumbly laziness, which stops the film from sinking. Danielsen Lie is every bit as good as he was in Reprise, and proves himself a worthy muse for Trier.
Unfortunately, Oslo eventually slips into a period of mere competence that drains the film of its initial promise. Whereas the opening stretches showcase Trier's talent for understated, moving drama, the middle seems more content to simply check off a series of dramatic tropes. Perhaps the one saving grace is that the inevitable moment where Anders briefly relapses is handled with simplicity and maturity. However, one could also argue that Anders' relapse is simply too sudden, and that Trier doesn't afford it the proper weight.
This leads to the script's chief problem, and the likely explanation for the saggy middle stretch of the narrative. Trier does an excellent job of giving us information about Anders' past, but he doesn't give us enough to work with. There are hints of Anders' parents being too lax when he was a child, among other things, but nothing emerges that can stand as a true insight into Anders' struggles with addiction and substance abuse. So even though the film resurrects itself for the final stretches (which include some truly lovely and haunting film making), Trier's morally ambiguous finale is troublesome because of what precedes it. With so much time spent understanding Anders' struggles with those around him, there isn't enough left over to focus strictly on Anders' past. Trier certainly saves himself with the ending, but upon further reflection, the substance of the conclusion still isn't quite enough to satisfy the somewhat hollow attempts at characterization and insight.