The title of Jesse Moss’ sensitive and revealing documentary, The Overnighters, refers to a group of men—and a much smaller handful of women—who spend their days searching for work in the oil fields of North Dakota and their nights crashing on the floor of a church in the town of Williston. Drawn from all over the country by the (sometimes empty) promise of the fracking boom, these destitute pilgrims are the face of hopeful desperation, and Moss sees in their individual plights a microcosm for America’s current economic climate. But for all the interest the filmmaker takes in his titular strivers, the true subject of The Overnighters turns out to be the holy man who offers them house and home: Pastor Jay Reinke, whose insistence on putting up these interlopers evolves from charitable pastime to bona fide crusade. In examining the man’s selfless service, Moss uncovers something greater than a vision of a divided community; he’s made a drama as prickly and surprising as any fictional character study.
“It’s easy to become a facade, maybe especially when you’re a pastor,” Reinke says in the film’s melancholy, twilight-filmed opening scene, which immediately frames The Overnighters as a kind of mystery of motivation. Mentally file away this prologue, as it will provide a subtext—clear in hindsight—to the subsequent events. Seeing it as the town’s civic and Christian duty to assist the people pouring in by the busload, Reinke has set up the Overnighters program, turning his church and its parking lot into a makeshift homeless shelter. This doesn’t sit especially well with the rapidly thinning congregation, nor with the townsfolk who regard these outsiders—some of whom possess criminal records and checkered pasts—with growing distrust. More and more opponents begin to crop up, especially as the full scope of Reinke’s forgiveness reveals itself. Would he put his own family at risk on principle? At times, the man’s commitment to the cause borders on fanaticism.
In a victory for journalistic integrity, Moss gives a voice to the demonized men—including one whose hard luck could fuel a whole feature—even as he refuses to dismiss the fears of those who want them gone. (The uptick in crime is not a fabricated statistic.) Without letting a political agenda hijack his movie, the filmmaker also allows one dissenter to voice concerns about the environmental consequences of fracking; whether the church should be supporting that industry, even indirectly, is one of many questions that hangs uncomfortably in the air. In some respects, The Overnighters plays like a study on the impossibility of true altruism. All acts of charity seem to come at the expense of someone’s best interests, to the point where choices must be made about whose needs are most important.
Always at film’s center is Reinke, a kindhearted man of convictions who refuses to give up on his grand project, even as the press, the neighbors, and even some of the men he helps turn against him. The pastor remains surprisingly candid about his faults, going as far as confessing to some potentially selfish reasons to fight the good fight. To that end, The Overnighters grows more troubling as it goes, increasingly probing the limits of Reinke’s compassion and hinting at the psychological reasons behind his actions. By the time it arrives on a truly unexpected development—the kind that could be written, but is even more powerful for having not been—the sense that we’ve been watching a kind of veiled atonement becomes overwhelming. Sometimes getting the full story means filming until the truth uncovers itself.