A man sits alone in a café. He is a recovering drug addict. All around him people are having conversations, some banal, others slightly deeper. People are on laptops, reading the lists of their life goals. People discuss their prowess on the piano. People tell off-color jokes, order their drinks, raise their babies. We see our man in the foreground and a blurred family behind him. Then he is in focus and the family is not. They’ll always be at a distance. That morning he tried to kill himself and later told a friend that he would do so again. He has just come back from a job interview that he sabotaged. A woman walks by the café, and our man follows her home in his mind as she goes grocery shopping, works out, drinks milk. He is surrounded by the things he’ll never have. What’s the point of staying clean? He’ll never be clean. Not like they are. This scene comes in the middle of Oslo, August 31st (2012), and it is its emotional center. Plenty of movies are about recovering addicts who are tempted to relapse, but this one demonstrates why it’s so alluring to fall off the wagon as well as any I’ve ever seen.
The drug addict is Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), who has been allowed to leave his treatment facility for a day to go for a job interview at a magazine. His first act as a free man is to walk into a lake with rocks tied to him. When he emerges, he looks like a man who has done this before and is annoyed he can’t do it correctly. He visits a friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), one of his old carousers who now has a wife and child, and listens with envy as Thomas tells him about his boring, settled life. Thomas convinces the wavering Anders to go to the interview, and it begins well, with Anders impressing the editor with his knowledge and good ideas. However, when pressed about a gap in his résumé, Anders confesses that he spent that time in a clinic. The interviewer thinks he’s joking at first but then embarrassedly returns to his questions, seeming to have accepted it, but Anders demands his résumé back and walks out. He arrives in the café.
This is the fantastic first half of Oslo, August 31st, which sets up a great movie. Unfortunately, its second half pays off only a very good one as Anders walks into a movie that I’ve seen a number of times before. There are some lovely parts in the second half (I’m thinking of a bike ride at dawn with a fire extinguisher and a revelation that Anders plays the piano that has some of the power of a similar disclosure in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces  and takes us back to the couple in the café who were discussing the instrument), but it doesn’t have the same life as the first, which gives us a man who has made two bad decisions in his life: to abuse drugs and to not forgive himself for it. That gets established in the first forty-five minutes, in the other forty-five we just see him tread water.
The movie is directed by Joachim Trier who puts together a fiercely realistic movie and elicits a powerfully subtle performance from Danielsen Lie, whom he’s worked with before. What they do so well is to suggest not the physical pull of drugs, but the isolation from normalcy they create. In many drug addict movies, some sort of emotionally tragic incident will push the hero back into the haze, and although I’m afraid Oslo, August 31st isn’t immune to this cliché, it does do the work to make us fully understand how the traumatic event isn’t the first provocation but the last straw on a weary camel’s back. Many movies focus on the physical withdrawal, but by the time we meet Anders he’s through with that; what we see here is how socially withdrawn the addict makes himself, therefore making every minute an emotional tragic incident. Anders doesn’t believe he’ll ever be able to re-enter the acceptable world, so it’s hard to justify his staying clean.
The world he feels he’s lost is represented in the opening moments by shots of Oslo and stock footage are run together over the voices of citizens recalling their first memories of the city. I was reminded of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2007), a documentary that was about the memories of that place. It’s a very different movie (not just from Oslo, August 31st but from just about every movie ever made), but there was a similar feeling of nostalgia. Most people have a sentimental pining for the place they grew up in because it ties them to their lost youth. I would imagine for the drug addict this pining is more intense because they actively took their youth away from themselves.
Oslo, August 31st is a quiet movie; it’s still and a little unnerving. It knows its subject and gives us a portrait that’s profoundly sad. It gives us time to reflect on the images until we realize that time is no friend to the recovering addict because it simply represents opportunities to give in.