by Matt Levine
Many narrative films (including documentaries) generally chart a path of hope or misery; though nearly any story has its light and dark moments, the audience often leaves feeling either inspired or devastated. (I suppose this is what screenwriting “experts” mean when they describe a story’s emotional arc.) The Overnighters, on the other hand, is one of those real-life stories where no satisfying, cohesive emotional climaxes are offered. This incredibly powerful documentary features a number of resilient characters who, against all odds, try to love their fellow man and empathize with people in the direst circumstances; by the end of the film, you do feel that humanity is capable of incredible compassion and kindness. At the same time, those saintly deeds and benevolent sacrifices warrant no good karma or reciprocal kindness for most of the people who are simply trying to do the right thing; in fact, through much of The Overnighters, attempts at empathy elicit only hostility and fear.
Film Society of Minneapolis/ Saint Paul
Director: Jesse Moss
Producers: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss
Writer: Jesse Moss
Cinematographer: Jesse Moss
Editor: Jeff Seymann Gilbert
Music: T. Griffin
Premiere: January 17, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 10, 2014
US Distributor: Drafthouse Films
The Overnighters takes place in Williston, North Dakota, a tiny town in the northwest region that has undergone an economic boom over the last five years. The controversial practice of “fracking”—or drilling into the ground and injecting high-pressure liquids in order to release valuable natural gas—has made oil-rich Williston a 21st-century gold mine. Desperate workers from throughout the country (or even the world, as we meet men who come from Ghana or Congo) have flocked to Williston, where, as one worker admits, “people with ten felonies can make a hundred grand a year.” The economic inflation extends throughout the town, where the average annual wage in 2013 was almost $78,000.
With such a meteoric influx, of course, comes overcrowding, fear, and a drastic cultural shift. What was once a nondescript, impoverished northern prairie town is now packed with migrants sleeping in trailers or cars; despite their generally high income, they’re unable to pay the most expensive rental-housing costs in the country (yes, even higher than New York). Men with criminal records or uncertain pasts can find a fresh slate in Williston—which is exactly what makes its pre-existing residents so uneasy.
The Overnighters doesn’t dwell on the statistics and history of this troublesome phenomenon. Instead, it focuses its attention on Pastor Jay Reinke, who has established what he calls an Overnighters program at the town’s Lutheran church. Touched by the stories of poverty, loneliness, and desperation related by so many of the workers who’ve traveled to Williston, Reinke provides housing and meals for dozens of workers inside the church, not to mention the dozens more who sleep in their cars in the church parking lot. As we can clearly see from Reinke’s sincere conversations with these men (and, less frequently, women), he simply wants to help fellow human beings that have traveled thousands of miles in search of work and money. But the Overnighters program has alienated Reinke from his community, who resent the new, “untrustworthy” element and the unrecognizable changes their town has undergone. The pressure placed on Reinke intensifies when it’s revealed that the influx of workers includes two registered sex offenders—one of whom, a seemingly compunctious man named Keith, has been invited to live in Reinke’s own basement (with the support of Reinke’s family).
It’s rare for a fiction film to have even one character with as much pathos and complexity as at least a half dozen figures in The Overnighters. There’s Pastor Reinke, of course, who despite his short temper seems invigorated by real human connection and appears truly baffled that anyone (especially the self-professed Christians who used to attend his church) would treat the workers with such disdain and animosity. With the inscrutable Keith, Reinke develops a trusting but testy friendship, as he does with an unofficial assistant for the Overnighters program who struggles not to relapse into his meth addiction. A number of workers come and go, some of them more prominent than others, but even the most fleeting carry identifiable pain and regret. Fortysomething Michael has traveled all the way from Tifton, Georgia, leaving behind two newborn sons; another man from Arizona relates a shockingly tragic story, only to leave town on a bus a few days later, astounded that the pastor tried to track him down to ensure he wasn’t succumbing to alcoholism. More than any other art form besides literature, movies have the ability to convey the unknown depth and volatility of a human life—an asset that The Overnighters forcefully demonstrates.
The story of Pastor Reinke and the migrant workers of Williston is inherently fascinating; even a simple, straightforward treatment would likely be compelling to watch. Thankfully, there’s little simple or straightforward about The Overnighters. Through its seemingly narrowed focus, the film turns into a microcosm of American greed and the fallibility of human morality. Why should people do good if it rarely benefits them, materially or otherwise? At what point does a desperate person forsake an attempt at goodness in favor of self-preservation? Faced with insurmountable pressures, Pastor Reinke explains, “Nobody’s good at loving, but we have to do it anyway.” Later, a repentant worker with a checkered criminal past says, “It doesn’t matter what good a person does. All that stays on your record is the bad things you’ve done.” The Overnighters ultimately achieves a tough, unforgiving humanism, an empathy for people who have done terrible things but strive to atone for their pasts, even when it doesn’t serve them to do so. Behind it all, conveyed with admirable subtlety, is an American economy that hungrily drills into the Dakotan earth, desperate for the oil-rich profits that might be found within. If American capitalism doesn’t care about the injustices it commits for the sake of money, why should any of its employees take their own righteousness into account?
Pastor Reinke is an indelible character, and writer-director-producer Jesse Moss is wise to focus the movie around him. A voiceover provided by Reinke acts as bookends for the film, as the pastor notes the vast rift between his public persona and his private life—an irreconcilability that the audience can only sense, though it’s effective nonetheless. He’s a mess of contradictions, with seemingly infinite amounts of compassion even while he resents the coldness of the Williston residents who want to banish the newcomers; when a scruffy-looking worker asks Reinke why he has to cut his hair, likening his locks to Jesus Christ, Reinke responds with surprising acidity, “Jesus didn’t have our neighbors.” A devastating turn of events for Reinke is contrasted with a blissful moment in which he pulls to the side of the road to wave at a passing Amtrak train—a blend of youthful joy and solemn world-weariness that feels true to life. An unexpected facet of Reinke’s character is abruptly revealed in the last five minutes, which is somewhat unfortunate: it’s a surprising development, one that changes much of what has come beforehand, but the movie simply ends before it comes to terms with this revelation. Even so, the audience is left with a central character who’s turbulent, paradoxical, unresolved, and unforgettable—he seems more like a real person than practically any other cinematic character this year.
The Overnighters is not perfect; its concentration on Reinke and the migrant workers ensures that some aspects of this story won’t be adequately told. The film somewhat unfairly silences the concerns of the townspeople, many of whom have been driven out of their homes by the skyrocketing rent prices; and the plight of the women in Williston, who are outmatched by men at a ratio of one to ten, are subject to frequent harassment, while prostitution has become much more overt and pandemic in the town. (A more comprehensive analysis of Williston can be found in this excellent Guardian article from July.) But maybe it’s unfair to expect a documentary to be totally comprehensive about its subject; if The Overnighters were to relate every provocative story currently taking place in Williston, it would likely be four hours long.
Jesse Moss’ direction is intelligent and unobtrusive, and while some of the cinematography and editing have the rough directness of low-budget indie docs, that unpolished edge serves the movie well. A few unexpectedly gorgeous moments emphasize how the natural beauty of the land is being desecrated by big business and power-hungry callousness, bringing to mind the man vs. nature duality of films such as To the Wonder (though The Overnighters handles it with more subtlety and fewer asinine voiceovers than Malick’s film). Moss’ real achievement as director, though, seems to be the unvarnished honesty that his subjects have with him; it’s incredible that so many of these explosive interactions are caught, unimpeded, on camera.
Neither inspirational nor hopeless, The Overnighters truly captures how messy and unresolvable life can be. In a perfect world—or, often, in the world of the movies—heroes are triumphant while villains are vanquished, and right and wrong can be fairly easily distinguished from each other. Not so in The Overnighters, a film whose ambiguity is more emotionally potent than most carefully-scripted dramas; the word “heartbreaking” is thrown around too often in movie reviews, but it's appropriate in this case. Its gritty compassion might best be summarized by one of Reinke’s darker assessments of human nature: “I’m broken. We’re broken. We’re just broken.” The Overnighters is a sobering film about trying to put the pieces back together.