At the start of Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31st, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) wants to die. He wakes up one morning, gets dressed, walks down to the river, fills his pockets with stones and then plunges in. Moments later Anders emerges, gasping for air, and dejectedly crawls his way out onto the riverbank. He walks back to the drug rehabilitation clinic where he has spent some time trying to get clean and straighten out his life, and he is handed an opportunity to finally take a step in the right direction. He has a job interview in Oslo, at a magazine where he will be able to put his skills as a writer to use, and we hope that Oslo, August 31st will present us with a man who, having failed to take his own life, will grasp at this fresh start with both hands. But Oslo, August 31st isn't that film. Life simply isn't that easy.
Anders' attempt to reconnect with society provides Oslo, August 31st with its narrative backbone and the protagonist's fragile grip on life gives it a gnawing sense of dramatic tension. Will Anders sink or swim, as he re-enters the world he last experienced as a hedonistic drug addict, spiralling towards self-destruction? His odyssey unfolds over the course of a single day, as he plans to make the most of his time in Oslo by meeting an old pal and his sister, and getting in touch with an ex-girlfriend who lives in New York, although the numerous unanswered messages he leaves for her suggests she isn't so keen on reconciliation. The experience is a disconcerting one for Anders, however, as he discovers that some old acquaintances have moved on with their lives while others still bear grudges for misdeeds that the old Anders committed. All of this is compounded by a sense of quiet shame that he exhibits, notably in the job interview when, having seemingly impressed the editor with his intelligence and insight, he suddenly clams up and bolts as his problematic history comes up.
All the while, we can sense something slipping inside Anders, with Lie – who also starred in Trier's impressive debut Reprise – giving a magnificent central performance that exposes so much anxiety and insecurity through his eyes and body language. He's a subtly expressive actor whose smallest gestures are telling, and he brings a remarkably vivid sense of emotional truthfulness to the heart of the picture. Trier and his excellent cameraman Jakob Ihre follow Anders at a close but respectful distance, the camera always finding the right spot to let us share in his turmoil without seeming to intrude upon it. Oslo, August 31st is a character study that finds warmth and coldness, humour and flickers of anger in its central figure, and Trier's skilfully constructed screenplay ("freely adapted," the credits tell us, from Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's Le Feu follet) sheds light on his life and situation through his natural, superbly played interactions with other characters.
The director does occasionally risk letting some of these encounters run on a little too long, and at a certain point in the second half, as Anders gradually slides back into his old bad habits, a grim inexorability takes hold of the movie. But there are so many moments here that dazzle – a late-night scooter ride through empty streets, an impromptu spot of swimming in the dawn light – and the way Trier uses editing and sound design to bring us into Anders' subjective point of view is exceptional. In particular, there's a sequence at the film's centre that stands alongside anything I've seen on screen this year, as Anders sits in a cafe and casually listens to the various conversations that take place at tables around him. For a couple of minutes we hear people discuss work matters and life matters, share some gossip and laugh at each other's jokes; and in the midst of all this chatter, all this life, we find Anders sitting quietly and alone, eavesdropping on a world that he doesn't feel he belongs to anymore.