Sometimes I miss the bygone eras of filmmaking. Regardless of the quality of the picture, you could be shown a random clip from a film and know instantly the genre. Once the genre was established you would know the stakes.
Joran Moss’s “The Overnighters” belongs instead to the contemporary school of digital documentaries. Every shot is color corrected and antiseptic.There’s no “tells” here. No cues from the lighting or the soundtrack that hint the trials its characters will go through. In this case this approach serves the numerous reversals and plot twists, giving each a blunt cruel edge. The only motif running through the picture is the churning of the oil pumps. They are shot from a distance, silently, ceaselessly. behind fences or off on the horizon. It’s their presence that beckons broken desperate men from all over the country and depending on who’s looking onto them they imply the possibility of redemption and self sufficiency.
Would it be a spoiler to say that every person highlighted in the Overnighters ends the film the victim of a tragedy? I don’t think so because part of the power of the film is what befalls them. Whether their wounds are self inflicted or cruel twists of fate, and most importantly how they cope. Do they “man up” and accept their lots, do they change, or do they find a scapegoat to direct their anger towards?
The Overnighters focuses on Jay Reinke, a Lutheran pastor with a church in the boom town of Williston, North Dakota. Reinke’s church gradually became a cross between a halfway house and a homeless shelter. The oil fields of Willison draw thousands of desperate men from across the country with the mere suggestion of six figure jobs. Such is the demand that all sins and felonies will be forgiven on arrival.
Of course it doesn’t work that way for many, if not most. North Dakota may have ample land, but very finite housing stock. The apartments are nil, and the trailer parks are all at capacity. Even those who’ve claimed the mythical jobs live in near squalor in cramped trailers and shacks.
The nature of this must be apparent on arrival. As dozens more men step off trains and buses and survey Williston, they must realize that finding a job will be one more struggle. Eventually many find their way to the door of Jay Reinke’s Lutheran church. Reinke’s offered a safe space to sleep for two years running. After letting a few “Overnighters” sleep in his church, news of his generosity spread eventually becoming part of Williston lore. Reinke is never shown at the bus stops recruiting Overnighters, they just seem to know about him.
There’s a whole genre of films built around people with a weaker story than Reinke. The lone hero. The Christ-like figure standing up for what’s right. Indeed when shown the groups in Williston that allied against the Overnighters and Reinke it’s easy at first to lump them into the common villains of narrative fiction and dramatic film. There’s the angry neighbors, the xenophobic press, and the quietly biased city council. All of which feed off the fears of each other, and cast the desperate visitors as an invading horde. I’ve noticed a frequent thread running through reviews and discussions of this film. Though there are few women amongst the Overnighters, Moss’s camera catches quite a few in Williston. Through his lens they are mostly seen through the security doors of their single story homes. Receptive perhaps to the stories of rape and murder repeated and disseminated through the press.
Reinke seems at first like the noble counter to these forces. His folksy persona and midwestern hospitality fit the parameters of the Christ-like ideal. But Moss keeps the camera trained on Reinke. Its safe to ask what kind of person would be able to dominate a documentary and what kind of persona they envisage will be favorable to the camera with certain behavior. It becomes clear when the camera is not on Reinke he’s more likely to sever relationships with his dependent flock. Though by no means are any of these people saints or even mostly reliable, their growing accounts of Reinke’s habits of discarding people he’s grown weary of start to carry weight.
To watch the whole of the Overnighters is to see Reinke with his plain speech and noble intentions perform some truly horrendous acts to the detriment of his community and family. But in the end the oil pumps churn for him just like everyone else lost in Williston.