A documentary by Jesse Moss. Rated PG.
If the events in The Overnighters were fictionalized and enacted by Hollywood heavyweights, critics would find them overwrought and unbelievable. But the fact that docmaker Jesse Moss, mostly working by himself, was able to spend 18 months in a tiny North Dakota setting gives this harrowing film the kind of realism that money can’t buy.
Part of what makes the movie so memorable and so disturbing, in its soft-spoken way (it offers no graphics, voice-overs, or other frills), is that Moss boils down to essentials what the U.S. is enduring in its melancholy twilight. The rest of its appeal can be attributed to the film’s middle-aged protagonist, a charismatic preacher named Jay Reinke, a real-life Ned Flanders if he was played by Derek Jacobi, who puts the Christ back in Christianity.
You see, the town of Williston is going through a sudden oil boom, with faceless companies rushing in to frack the hell out of recently discovered natural-gas reserves. After decades of losing its young people in a failing rural economy, there has been zero effort—by the town, state, or corporate interests—to build any infrastructure to accommodate the flood of transients. The result is a rental market that’s more expensive than those of Manhattan and San Francisco.
Consequently, Reinke opened the doors—and the parking lot—of his Lutheran church to drifters who’ve pretty much failed everywhere else. His compassion involves feeding, counselling, and encouraging these leftovers, even taking a few troubled stragglers home to his incredibly patient wife and children. The response of church elders, and of some neighbours, runs from uncomfortably tolerant to downright xenophobic (although most of the overnighters are white American males), with one local woman insisting that the newcomers will “rape, pillage, and leave”.
Subconsciously, she’s probably addressing those fracking firms, although not one person on camera questions the long-term effects of this explosion on their environment. Still, there are some heavily bruised apples rolling off the buses, looking for big bucks in the oil patch. Late revelations about the arrivistes will test the pastor’s commitment and also unearth his own conflicts—both about his motives and some hidden fears. It turns out that Reinke does have some flaws, but these only matter when society makes it so very hard to be human.