The bootstrapping American Dream of Horatio Alger’s myths seem further away than ever. An eroding middle class, widespread globalization, ongoing conflicts, and the new normal of near-constant economic turmoil have made it abundantly clear that true “rags to riches” stories are few and far between. Yet there’s still opportunities to be had if you look hard enough, and one such boomtown is Williston, North Dakota. Spurred on by the discovery of a massive oil field and the resulting industry that sprang up around it, the small town saw its population nearly double since 2010 and is the setting for the resonant and unblinking documentary The Overnighters.
Director/writer Jesse Moss struck gold himself by choosing to tell the stories of Williston and the hardscrabble folks that flocked there in the wake of tales of wealth and six figure incomes for general labourers. Specifically, his choice to follow local Lutheran Pastor Jay Reinke leads to revelations and riveting storytelling that the best screenwriters couldn’t hope to dream up. This is a true American tale of reinvention and desperation, of one man’s struggle against a tide of cruelty and ambivalence, and of what secrets lie in his motivations to do good.
The Overnighters opens with an ominous voiceover from Reinke himself as he mills about an abandoned church in the magic hour of twilight. This sets an appropriately unsettling mood for a documentary that is Steinbeckian to its core in both its grim subject matter and depiction of the failed American Dream. Pastor Reinke presides over the congregation of the Concordia Lutheran Church, and he’s the architect of the “Overnighters” program which provides overnight cots for the many displaced men who come to Williston with hopes and dreams of finding something as simple as a steady job.
The men are, by and large, from hard-luck backgrounds. Broken or nearing defeat and often harbouring criminal records or addiction issues, they come to Williston by the trainloads to find wildly inflated housing prices, an unwelcoming local population, and an uphill climb for fabled employment. Taking pity on them and seeking to honour Christ’s teachings of “do unto others”, Reinke takes them in and provides either a cot inside or a place to park their car and sleep in the church parking lot. As community opposition grows to these interlopers from all across America, the local government seeks to crack down on what they view to be “vagrants” and “unseemly elements” by passing bylaws to limit boarders, the abundant use of RVs, and sleeping in cars.
Reinke’s enthusiasm, faith, and positivity remain nearly unflagging for the most part. He dedicates considerable time and effort to his “Overnighters” program, to the point that he neglects his family and congregation, earning him opposition from not just townspeople who’ve seen the crime rate rise, but from those closest to him as well. His motivation borders on the fanatical and as the film goes on Reinke himself – an incredibly candid and emotive subject – questions his motivations aloud as the nature of true altruism is tested. There’s some truly shocking turns that Moss captures with a clear-eyed gaze as this tale of forgotten, broken men and the pastor who tries to help them unfolds with increasingly bold forward momentum.
While the milieu is quintessentially American and evocative of the economic hardships the country faces, it’s told not just from the main focal point of Reinke but the men he helps as well. There’s Keegan, a young man moving up at his job in the oil fields and eager to move his girlfriend and young daughter out with him. There’s Reinke’s second-in-command, a former alcoholic and convict who seems to have reformed after finding a guiding purpose. There’s numerous other tales of men on the fringes, either homeless or close to it, just struggling to get a leg up in this world. Their stories are affecting and haunting, often ending in heartbreak that in hindsight seems unavoidable. It’s stirring and tragic, giving an all too-rare window into the lives of many Americans who are severely under represented in most forms of media.
Reinke’s wife is omnipresent as well, and her journey from stoic supporter to a woman at the end of her rope is one of the film’s most haunting. Her faith is tested immeasurably and the glimpses we see of her hint at underlying issues that go deeper than a workaholic husband. Reinke’s opponents are given screentime as well, most notably in a sequence that sees a member of his congregation railing against the potential environmental impact of “fracking” and when Reinke goes to recover a stolen RV and faces a gun-wielding homeowner. Another key development involves the local paper’s muckraking and reporting of the overnighters’ criminal records, with a keen interest on their most egregious transgressions, further inflaming tensions between the transient population and local residents.
The town and Reinke’s place in it are a powder keg, boiling up and ready to blow. That tipping point eventually comes and Moss captures much of the conflict as it occurs, which is both remarkable and spellbinding. I’m not the first to say it, but this really does feel like a modern-day “Grapes of Wrath”. There’s a circular through line to The Overnighters that becomes clear in the film’s final shocking moments, hammering home its themes of loss, redemption, faith and belief, while refusing to provide true closure. This is another story of America, one of many, but it sets itself apart through its unvarnished look at the human condition and deep well of empathy.
The Overnighters (2014)
Director: Jesse Moss
Runtime: 102 minutes