Small towns are a big deal these days, particularly for documentaries focusing on the disappearance of that part of America. But most of those films are focused on places that are shrinking, where poverty and crime are rampant due to factory shutdowns and other economic causes. The Overnighters shows a different dilemma. Williston, North Dakota, is experiencing a boom in population thanks to a rise in nearby oil drilling and therefore a rise in available jobs.
But crime rates also increase along with the growth of towns, and while poverty isn’t technically an issue given that unemployment is officially near-nonexistent and the minimum wage is much higher than required, Williston does have a homeless problem. Its housing market just can’t catch up with the number of people arriving daily, so new residents are sleeping in their cars and filling shopping center lots with their RVs.
Pastor Jay Reinke of the Concordia Lutheran Church is one man trying to alleviate the problem by opening the doors of his Congregation to men and women in need of at least floor space and a roof over their head. These are mainly employed people with no other option for shelter, but some are guys who’ve just arrived and have criminal records that Reinke may be willing to forgive so long as it doesn’t keep them from finding work. Unfortunately, not everyone is so merciful.
The film introduces us to characters from all over the country, especially men young and old who’ve temporarily left their families and owned homes to make quick money in the oil fields. Others are clearly escaping troubled pasts and looking to start over. It comes out that a significant amount of newcomers are registered sex offenders who haven’t alerted the town yet. Following the uptick of rape, murder and other violent crime cases in the area, it makes sense that the native Willistonians are concerned for their neighborhood, disapproving of the kind of good Christian assistance that Reinke is providing if that assistance is a threat to their feeling safe.
At first, director Jesse Moss (Full Battle Rattle) seems interested in merely providing a study of the town and the people — not just Reinke, though he is more and more the primary focus as the doc goes on. A lot of the pastor’s scenes with hopeful “overnighters” are reminiscent of moments in Frederick Wiseman’s Welfare, as they’re all about the process of a system of community aid and presented as that which can be typically observed there. However, this is not a government institution or even a sanctioned operation. There is no concrete bureaucracy in place, and there don’t appear to be consistent boundaries either.
Eventually an actual story surfaces, and Moss plays it almost as a taut, atmospheric thriller. It helps that the chronology of events occur alongside the passing of the seasons leading toward winter. It’s North Dakota, so living in a car can’t be a good idea year round, and the approach of those cold months coincide with other looming disasters. Suspense is built up with sequences involving confrontations with locals, legislative threats from the city council, overnighters getting into trouble, a houseguest situation that can’t end well, a pesky reporter looking to uncover more dirt — all of which could surely break Reinke at any moment.
The Overnighters has a lot of unforgettable scenes, their number increasing over the course of the thickening plot, but mainly it’s Reinke who makes this a memorable account of men at their wits ends, all standing in for and upon a new American landscape of hope enmeshed with desperation. He is either hero or human, but the film questions whether he can be both. It also had me asking, who saves the savior?
Throughout the film, many of the most real downtrodden people you’ll ever meet display and sometimes address the devastating ironies, lies and hypocrisies of this modern boomtown, and the saddest thing in the end may be that there is nowhere to place blame for all the heartbreaking collapses and relapses and just plain lapses — no oil company or angry townspeople or government or financial crisis or greater problem of society — than with the individuals themselves. It’s like an issue film where the issue is merely man’s ability to make wrong choices.
And of course how much everyone else is unable to excuse those wrong choices. A key line in the film comes from one of the characters who can’t rise above the mistakes of his youth. “All that stays with you for life is negative,” he says, noting that there are no permanent records for the good deeds, only the bad. It’s a statement in conflict with the very medium recording his words, but then not everyone’s actions are captured in a documentary. And even then, no one’s entire story is, at all.
Moss was apparently embedded in the circumstances of Williston because he had to bunk at Concordia Lutheran as there are no hotel vacancies in the area even for a visiting journalist or filmmaker. What he came away with from the inside is a perceptive portrait of the best and worst of human nature. More than an illustration of individual situations and the sum of its parts, The Overnighters is a modern moral tale for our times.
This review was originally published on January 18, 2014.