Film Review: The Overnighters

In Jesse Moss' taut and morally complex documentary, a pastor opens his church to homeless men looking for work in the booming North Dakota oil fields and faces the wrath of a small town nervous about their community's rapid transformation.
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The Steinbeckian parallels are laced through Jesse Moss’s The Overnighters. Men from as far afield as California, Georgia and New York show up in North Dakota looking for work and are vilified for doing so, even as pastor Jay Reinke fights for their interests. These aren’t college-degree guys who can just tweak their resume and shift to a new and more promising field. They’re blue-collar men used to building things, driving trucks, doing whatever they can to make a living. After word filtered across the country about job prospects in the Bakken oil fields, they began showing up in droves. But just like the Okies who crossed the country on a wing and a prayer looking for a decent wage and some dignity, these migrants are seen not as strivers but bums bringing chaos and crime.

In the town of Williston, the oil field jobs have brought the possibility of work but also the reality of boom-town economics. The prospect of plentiful jobs paying $100,000 has brought a Wild West mentality to this spare and abstemious high-plains town, with all the economic pressures and outer-world decadence that entails. Rents have tripled and quadrupled, forcing out longtime residents and leaving the new jobseekers nowhere to stay. Concordia, the local Lutheran church, has become something of a temporary shelter for some of those migrants. They bed down on the pews, on the floor, in their cars in the parking lot. This strikes some of the parishioners as excessive. Some say they feel uncomfortable or unsafe in their own church. Referring most likely to the uptick in crime that the oil rush of new money brings, one refers to the men as outsiders “who rape and pillage and burn.” Their tenor varies from quiet to loud, but overall the response is: Stay away.

Moss initially seems to be making an inspirational story about a great man bucking intolerance. The film follows Reinke on his rounds, waking the sleeping men up with hymns and giving them tough-love talks and job-searching advice throughout the day. He doesn’t insist they come to services but notes that since they’re guests it would be just good manners. His hushed voice and aw-shucks, fatherly demeanor win over many of these hardscrabble guys who tilt between flinty pride at being resolute job-hunters and the exhausted look of the economically KO’d.

By simply hanging in with its story longer than some documentaries might, The Overnighters crafts a more tangled and bruising tale than you might imagine. Moss’ sympathies are certainly in Reinke’s corner. He gives these men a dignity that many would deny. A quick flurry of inset shots showing oil rigs, a Halliburton sign, men getting off a private jet, and a cluster of McMansions make clear who is making the real money off the oil rush, even as Willston residents and the newcomers fight for a piece of the pie. But Reinke’s mission to create a welcoming home for these newcomers generates more controversy, particularly after the local paper digs into an allegation that some of the men (including at least one who Reinke has staying in his house with his wife and children) are registered sex offenders. There’s more than a hint of self-destruction about Reinke and his cause, pursued in a doggedly single-minded fashion that rarely takes his family or church members into account. It’s a complex story that doesn’t lend itself to easy answers, and that’s before a last-act revelation casts some of the narrative in an entirely new light.

Less a simplistic indictment of small-town small-mindedness (of which there is plenty here) than an investigation of the double-edged sword that is unexpected prosperity, The Overnighters raises questions that need to be asked without pretending it knows all the answers.

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