There are two elements that elevate Joachim Trier's "Oslo, August 31st" beyond the normal crop of well-made, faceless festival films in the grim style of the rightfully sainted Dardennes brothers. The first and most important is the exceptional lead performance by Anders Danielsen Lie, previously seen (by people other than me) in Trier's first film "Reprise." He plays a rehabbing drug addict named Anders, and though it's probably a coincidence in casting/naming, Lie burrows in and does everything he can to make us feel for a self-destructive man whose potentially fruitful life has been rewritten by abuse. We pick up certain details about the past along the way, but credit to Lie for radiating the burnt out and cautiously optimistic demeanor such a character would. The second factor that distinguishes this film is the flawed but fitfully extraordinary screenplay by Trier, who works from a novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. The film's use of monologues/narration and observation of the random people around Anders shows its origins in the literary, but these techniques end up feeling wonderfully evocative instead of turgid and flat. However, these bursts of unlikely invention are ultimately unable to lift "Oslo" to a higher cinematic tier due to Trier's overall blank and restrained style that works extremely well in certain instances but leaves little imprint on the viewer when all's said and done.
My feelings about this film feel bizarre to me, considering how much I appreciated the way Trier told his story and how well I responded to the attention paid to the subtle dynamics between characters. The pinnacle of the film (outside of the aforementioned narration) is a 20 minute portion dedicated to a long conversation between Anders and his friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner, who reminds me a lot of Michael Shannon). Though Thomas cares deeply for Anders, he also seems to have been consistently hurt by him in the past. This is conveyed through Thomas' sporadic conversational arrogance and offering a recovering alcoholic and druggie a beer with his meal. It's a complicated relationship, and Trier steers it in interestingly conflicting directions. Outside of early scenes depicting a suicide attempt and a (close-up heavy) drug-abuse meeting, his style best suits this scenario. His oft-used slow dolly-ins build tension and beauty, drawing attention to his dialogue. And in this case it's devastating. I was somewhat disappointed with the rest of the film for never reaching the emotional clarity of this section. That's not to say it isn't depressing (read: it is). But it's not quite as heartrending, which is what I think is what's missing. B