Jesse Moss’s documentary “The Overnighters” is being hailed as a modern-day “Grapes of Wrath,” which, up to a point, it is. But it’s far more complicated than that. What starts out as a film about job seekers in the thick of the recession becomes a movie about the limits of religious faith in an oil boom town increasingly inhospitable to the hordes of hopefuls looking for their shot at the American dream.
Moss, a San Francisco filmmaker, decided in 2012 to check out the goings-on in Williston, N.D., a small town of 12,000 people transformed into a magnet for the jobless after the discovery of oil there. (About 30,000 people arrived looking for work.) Between April 2012 and September 2013, for five to eight days at a stretch, Moss made about 16 trips to Williston, acting as his own one-man crew.
His entree was the Concordia Lutheran Church and its pastor, Jay Reinke, who opened his church’s doors to the “overnighters,” as he calls them, as they flowed into a town where virtually all the hotels and man-made camps were already fully booked by the oil companies.
For a night, a week, or much longer, Reinke allowed these itinerants, almost all men, to sleep in the basement of the church, in the pews, or in their cars (if they had them) in the church parking lot. A few he allowed to live in the basement of the home he shared with his wife and teenage children.
Some of these men had criminal pasts or were clearly unbalanced by drugs or psychological turmoil. Reinke knew all this, even allowing one man with an unpublicized record as a sex offender to live in his home. (The man was allegedly 18 when he had sex with a 16-year-old girl.) Reinke’s congregation and neighbors were initially sympathetic to his housing these men in the interests of charity and good faith, but rifts soon developed. One congregant speaks of the overnighters as rapists and pillagers. “This is not my home anymore,” she tells Reinke.
A city council meeting came down hard on the living arrangements. A disaffected overnighter who was turned out of Reinke’s home informed the local newspaper about the sex offender residing there, setting off an investigation threatening not only the pastor’s program but also the church itself – or at least his place in it. And then, just when you thought you’d heard it all, Moss throws in a thunderbolt of a revelation at the end that, although in retrospect you could see it coming, is still shocking.
This is a movie about the wages of success. Men of all stripes streamed into Williston hoping to score big – not just ex-cons and the rootless but also men with PhDs, African immigrants, men looking to support their families back home. The miserable living situation was a direct result of the higher job rate. This is not exactly “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Moss doesn’t demonize those who raise fears about the overnighters; he casts their fears as legitimate. Reinke’s Christian charity is a complicated issue. Why does he extend himself for these men, even at the expense of his loving, close-knit family, with such single-minded fervor? When he calmly ministers to a man who is clearly deranged, you feel the pastor’s immense fund of kindness but you also take note when he tells the man, “You and I are a lot more alike than we are different.”
“I don’t say ‘no’ very well,” he admits to Moss. Reinke and his somewhat dazed wife agree: “People have needs and you just want to help them.” How much of this is self-serving and how much self-effacing is difficult to determine. Reinke becomes less, not more, psychologically comprehensible as the film’s complications pile up.
“The Overnighters,” which won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, is a classic example of a documentary that discovers its subject in the process of its making. Moss (who camped out with the overnighters during production) went to Williston ready to embrace the American dream scenario but also, as he has written in the film’s press notes, aware that “the promise of energy and oil concealed a darker, ground-level truth.”
Even though the overnighters were extraordinarily open to his cameras – “desperation,” Moss writes, “forces people to drop their usual defenses” – they are ultimately as opaque and unsettling as Reinke. This is not really a criticism of the movie. It’s an observation about life. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief strong language.)