“The Overnighters” features a revelation that throws everything you thought about the film and its subject, Pastor Jay Reinke, into question. Up until that point, it’s still a gripping experience. The film centers on the town of Williston, North Dakota, which tens of thousands of unemployed men and women have come to looking for a job during the oil boom. Finding nothing, they meet Reinke, who allows the unemployed to stay and sleep in his church, Concordia Lutheran Church, until they get on their feet. But many of them have difficult pasts, and as the town dynamic is changed, many criticize the church and the City Council tries to have the “Overnighters” program shut down.
Director Jesse Moss makes both sides understandable: Reinke believes he has a commitment to helping the disenfranchised, while his opponents cite the very real rise in crime. Reinke is a kind man, but one with an almost obsessive devotion, and the question comes up about whether or not he’d risk his family to help the men. The big revelation only further muddies the waters. Moss’s film is as deeply empathetic as it is inquisitive, a look at altruism, the American Dream, and the limits of both.
Also, if you see “The Overnighters” in a theater and don’t like it, distributor Tim League of Drafthouse Films has offered to pay for your ticket and your concessions. He’s rightly confident he won’t have to follow through.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Jason Bailey, Flavorwire
Moss’ camera captures some extraordinarily candid moments, up to and including a closing bombshell that reframes much of what’s come before. But it’s not just voyeurism; the picture carefully considers, in a way that’s seldom seen in American film, exactly what it is to be a Christian — not just to say it, but to be it — and the implications of living one’s life accordingly. Read more.
To that end, “The Overnighters” grows more troubling as it goes, increasingly probing the limits of Reinke’s compassion and hinting at the psychological reasons behind his actions. By the time it arrives on a truly unexpected development—the kind that could be written, but is even more powerful for having not been—the sense that we’ve been watching a kind of veiled atonement becomes overwhelming. Read more.
Eric Kohn, Indiewire
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. Read more.
Scott Tobias, The Dissolve
There are an abundance of great angles to Moss’ story, which epitomizes both the working-class desperation of the recession and the insularity of small-town America, which does not want your tired, your poor, and your huddled masses, even if they’re Americans, too. It’s an immigration tale about people who live within the same borders but are not given the same rights and courtesies. And Moss has a riveting subject in Reinke, who keeps on fighting an uphill battle and makes mistakes that speak as much to his extraordinary generosity as to his naiveté, arrogance, and miscalculation. Moss had the instincts to know this situation was a potential powder keg, but he couldn’t have known if it would blow, much less when or how. Read more.
Katie Walsh, The Playlist
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. Read more.