The latest documentary from filmmaker Jesse Moss, “The Overnighters” contains much, much more than meets the eye. It’s a film that seems to be about one serious issue—the overflow of men looking for work in oil-rich North Dakota—but is actually about morality, consequence, and the choices we make. It’s almost hard to put this film into words, its devastating effect lasting long after it has ended. The sheer weight of this story is not easily described, as the layers that it reveals go deeper than one ever expects. Needless to say, “The Overnighters” will be a film that will be discussed for a long time. A true tragedy, this is a tale that weaves together deeply human elements but doesn’t offer a single easy answer.
In the town of Williston, North Dakota, fracking has revealed black gold in the form of oil, and a millennial gold rush has sent droves of men to the state in search of the American dream—six figures, that is. It’s rough, dirty, life-threatening work, and for lower- and middle-class men, American and not, it represents a chance at a new life in a system that’s only brought them down. But not everyone gets a job, and rent has skyrocketed in the small town, leaving many to sleep in their cars or seek shelter elsewhere. Enter Pastor Jay Reinke, who has started a program called “The Overnighters” in his church, allowing down and out men to sleep on the floor or cots or park their RVs in the lot. The legality of the project is questionable, but Pastor Reinke can’t and doesn’t want to turn away anyone who’s out of options, and he welcomes his flock with open arms. Just like Jesus embracing the leper Lazarus, risen from the dead, Pastor Reinke embraces the immigrants, the sex offenders, and the drug addicts who have made the pilgrimage to North Dakota in search of a new life.
Pastor Reinke is an embattled man, under pressure from the City Council, his neighbors, and the local newspaper for his willingness to accept those who have been otherwise rejected from society, most notably the registered sex offenders. One man, Keith, was convicted of statutory rape for having sex with his underage girlfriend, and the label follows him wherever he goes—in applying for jobs, housing, etc. Pastor Reinke welcomes him to stay in his home despite the fact that he has teenage daughters, putting his trust in Keith. Reinke sticks his neck out for these rough and tumble dudes, drug addicts and felons. But he can’t save everyone, and his “accept all” belief is continually tested by the increasingly impatient community and congregation, his family expectations, and by the men themselves, many of whom are on unsteady terms with their sobriety and their faith.
Reinke deeply relates to and bonds with these men, claiming he too is “broken.” He seems to understand many of their struggles on an intimate and visceral level, which is curious for a religious man, father of three, and pillar of the community. The film doesn’t give much in the way of his backstory, but it is not necessary to truly experience the drama and risk at hand when Pastor Reinke puts his livelihood and reputation on the line to offer welcoming compassion and help to someone who asks for it. The only way to describe his warmth and willingness to help is “Christlike.” Despite the struggles of his wife and kids, they are resolutely dedicated to his cause, and seem unable to understand anyone who might disagree.
On its surface, “The Overnighters” is a film about what people think of as “the American Dream”—the right to pursue hard work and the money that is earned from that. The tales of “guys with ten felonies making six figures” are spoken through cell phone conversations and spread throughout the land. The reality, as is illustrated, is something much uglier than that. In a town ill-equipped to handle the rush, and corporations that don’t seem to care about much other than the bottom line (corporations are scarce in this film—a shot of the Halliburton logo on a building is all it takes to remind us of how uninvolved they are), there are going to be wayward men who show up to work but fall through the cracks. Ultimately, the film is about morality, judgment, and how the choices we make may haunt us forever. There’s no getting away from yourself, even in Boomtown, USA.
Some of the story moments in “The Overnighters” bubble up too quickly and without enough context or connection to the overall narrative—this is not a film that is going to hold your hand and walk you through itself step by step. Issues rise to the surface and pop before you can even expect or process them, and there are a few times when, as an audience member, you want more guidance. But it’s truly more realistic this way, and the film is not going to slow down or over-explain for anything. It will leave you stunned, questioning, and unsure of what is right and what is wrong—as most great docs do. And Pastor Jay Reinke is one of the most unforgettable tragic figures in 2014 cinema. “The Overnighters” is starkly bleak and devastatingly humane, and an indelible American documentary. [A-]