Jesse Moss’s The Overnighters is an existentially probing documentary with more layers than a twisty Hollywood thriller, at turns inspiring, challenging, sobering and finally devastating.
On the surface, it first presents itself as an edifying portrait of a committed Lutheran pastor in a booming North Dakota oil town that is attracting throngs of out-out-state laborers with the promise of hard work for good pay. Often these men have little means and varyingly desperate situations, and the Rev. Jay Reinke, an earnest, moon-faced older man with a cleft chin, spectacles and a thatch of salt-and-pepper hair, offers them what he can: a place to stay and help finding a job.
It soon becomes apparent that many of these men are rough around the edges, and their growing presence in Williston — and in particular their presence at the church — is a bone of contention in the community. Neighbors resent Reinke’s hospitality toward what they consider an undesirable element, and some of Reinke’s parishioners at Concordia Lutheran Church find the “overnighters” a disruptive, seemingly disrespectful element at worship services.
There’s a socioeconomic divide here, through Reinke admits the community’s fears aren’t unfounded: There has been a rise in crime, and at some point in the past a woman was murdered, apparently by migrant laborers. In spite of this, the pastor insists that resisting suspicion and hostility is the right response. “We risk serving fear of the people coming at us,” he says, “and the last thing we need to do is serve our fear.”
Reinke’s approach seems gratifyingly balanced: He opposes the community’s resistance to the overnighters and does what he can to promote understanding and openness among them — but he also urges overnighters met with cold shoulders to respond with patience and love. His focus on the overnighters as “neighbors” to whom he is bound to show Christian love and hospitality doesn’t prevent him from recognizing that “The people who don’t want them here are also my neighbor” (his literal neighbors, in fact).
Such commitment to living the Gospel ethos is bracing and encouraging. Yet as the drama continues to unfold, at times spiraling in unexpected directions, questions arise about Reinke’s perspective and judgment. His flock dwindles, people he has reached out to are alienated, and some of them may have a point. An obnoxious reporter confronts Reinke on the street, and his response doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Moss shapes his narrative with empathy for all parties and every point of view and a strong dramatic sense for when and how each card is laid on the table. He also has a sharp eye for striking images and makes shrewd editing choices. Remarks made in interview footage are often complemented by well-chosen shots; one could follow the story just by listening, but the images do much more than illustrate the story.
We feel the acute need of men without work and the much-needed sense of pride some of them are able to take in doing a day’s work to provide for families who may be far away. But the locals who resent the impact of the fracking industry on their local environment have a stake that can’t be dismissed either. There’s also the toll that the industry takes on the men we follow, one of whom is seriously injured.
What began as a seemingly straightforward celebration of Christian virtue becomes a complex chronicle of a community in conflict with no easy answers. Moss’s wife Andrea and his three children stand by his decisions, but are they too close to a charismatic man to see a larger perspective?
In the last act (I’ll be as vague as I can) comes a revelation with stunning implications for much of what’s come before, and for the Reinkes’ lives going forward. The Overnighters ultimately reveals itself as an excruciating meditation on the contradictions people live with, on the tension between one’s public and private self, and the extent to which heroic virtue and service can coexist with deep moral compromise.
“You and I are a whole lot more alike than we are different,” Reinke tells a very troubled man struggling with drug addiction and other demons. “I’m broken. We’re broken.” It might sound like a high-minded, possibly condescending piety, but Reinke is utterly earnest. One of the most remarkable things about The Overnighters is how a man whose whole life some might wish to see as a hypocritical lie is revealed as a complex but morally serious man whose contradictions don’t invalidate his commitment to his faith and his family.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.