At first galvanizing in its depiction of survival amid dire circumstances, “The Overnighters” transforms into a devastating portrait of communal unrest. Jesse Moss’ verite documentary about the impact of the oil boom in Williston, North Dakota on the local job market, and the controversial priest supporting the lives of the newcomers it attracts, contains one of the most remarkable examples of layered non-fiction storytelling to come along in some time. Though well-made throughout, “The Overnighters” builds from a warm, traditional portrait of the American dream in action to arrive at a shocking finale that redefines its focus. Far from simply giving its subject a hearty pat on the back, “The Overnighters” digs beneath the surface of the idealism he strives to embody and arrives at disturbing truths.
The focus of the story is pastor Jay Reinke, whose Concordia Lutheran Church opens its doors to the various struggling men who pass through town seeking work. “We’re not a shelter,” he tells some newcomers. “This is a place for men to get jobs.” And so they do: Cleanly edited montages capture oil workers buried in their tasks, while a flurry of headlines note the impact of the new arrivals, some of whom make as much as six figures. Instigating a gold rush-level mania, Williston’s job market leads to an oversaturation of drifters, illustrated by the men sleeping on the floors and in the parking lots of Reinke’s church. Elsewhere in town, tents and RV’s indicate the constant presence of nomadic job seekers. The buttoned-up locals grow anxious, particularly after a local woman is found murdered by men believed to have passed through in search of work, and their anxieties naturally arrive at Reinke’s doorstep. “This is not my home anymore,” one woman tells him. “It does amaze me,” he reflects later, “that giving floor space is provocative.”
Moss captures Reinke’s good-natured activism with an unfiltered eye, following the man as he goes door to door trying to convince neighbors to accept the newcomers to no avail. As their complaints grow louder, “The Overnighters” shifts from a traditional overview and becomes a gripping look at the pastor’s own desperation as his livelihood gets threatened from multiple directions. Worrying both for his family and his ideals, Reinke’s good-natured demeanor starts to show signs of greater unease lurking beneath the surface. “The private person is something else,” he observes, pointing to the movie’s shocking final revelation that crystallizes its ideas: While initially a gentle interrogation of Christian dogma, “The Overnighters” expands to a larger investigation of altruism and its roots in private psychologies.
While Reinke is continually the focus of the story, Moss peppers his tale with countless mini-profiles of the broke and desperate men who pass through his church, many of whom routinely call their wives to boast of new opportunities. The town’s promise isn’t an empty one, though it’s ironically threatened by adherents to the same religious principles espoused by the beleaguered priest. A terrific activist persona, he battles to put a valiant foot forward. After requesting that the men staying in his church keep their hair short to quell frightened locals, one of them shoots back, “Did Jesus have long hair?” Reinke doesn’t hesitate: “Jesus didn’t have our neighbors.”
Nor did he have present day technology, which enables Reinke to run background checks on his men and realize he might have more trouble on his hands than he initially realized. Harboring several convicts, including registered sex offenders, Reinke realizes he’s in a tough spot and forced to confront them before the public catches on — but it might be too late. As the prospects of the local dispute threaten to destroy Reinke’s career, the story ingredients slowly thicken, and Reinke’s anxieties pierce a hole in his cheery demeanor. He faces a series of trials in the third act that call into question his intentions from the outset. Among the many other men whose lives Moss outlines, truck driver Keith — whom Reinke initially welcomes into his home — stands out as one of several frustrated men Reinke tries to help and winds up threatening the entire operation. Stuck between an allegiance to his mission and his personal life, Reinke reckons with that duality to devastating effect in the movie’s closing scenes.
It’s clear from the outset that his saintly demeanor belies the priest’s inner demons, but it isn’t until the final image that the cycle of dependency at the root of the narrative comes full circle. In retrospect, Reinke faces the same challenges he helps others overcome. “You and I have more in common than you realize,” he tells one lost soul. “I want to be your advocate.” But Moss leaves us with the haunting uncertainty of whether anyone can provide the same service for the priest himself.
A version of this review ran during the Sundance Film Festival. “The Overnighters” opens in limited release this Friday.