When the audience first meets Anders Danielsen Lie in Joachim Trier’s perceptive second feature, Oslo, August 31st, he’s on the other side of a heroin rehabilitation program, having earned enough trust to leave a state facility for a day and start establishing a new life on the outside. As a 34-year-old of means and literary talent, his prospects are better than many people’s, but thoughts of suicide are nonetheless not far from his mind. The problem for Lie isn’t necessarily the potential for relapse, though he admits to craving heroin after 10 months of sobriety. The bigger problem is more existential and at least as dangerous: Why bother? What place does he have in the world, and what does it all mean? Those are the types of questions that almost certainly led to his addiction in the first place.
Scaling back the flash of his promising debut film, Reprise, Trier addresses his hero’s problems honestly and unsentimentally as Lie tries to puzzle out life after rehab. The title refers to his single-day leave in Oslo, and Trier deals with the events and conversations of that day with a beautiful sense of proportion. The morning begins with Lie having breakfast with his old buddy Hans Olar Brenner, who has settled into the middle-class comforts of a nice home and family, and ends with a scheduled meeting with his estranged sister. In between, Lie has scored a job interview at a magazine—both this and Reprise involve the publishing world to varying extents—but his considerable qualifications are undermined by his evident instability.
Those early scenes between Lie and Brenner are the best in the film, crystallizing Lie’s deep skepticism and dread, which his friend can’t dispel with halfhearted endorsements of family life and bourgeois normalcy. As day turns to night, Oslo, August 31st shifts into a more perilous odyssey, fueled by Lie’s persistent doubts about the meaning of recovery. Trier doesn’t allow the bleakness of the material to swamp the film in a miserablist tone, but he doesn’t hold back, either, in revealing every hairline crack in Lie’s fragile psyche. He writes his hero into a tight corner, but finds a simultaneously graceful and uncompromising way back into the light. Neat trick, that.