A documentary on a North Dakota oil boom town evolves into a study of the complexity of human motivation.
The Overnighters feels like one of those rare, lightning in a bottle stories caught in a documentary. What are the odds of coming upon such an incredible story, let alone one that manages to be captured on camera? Life imitates art in the strangest ways, sometimes. Director Jesse Moss started working on The Overnighters as a profile of Williston, North Dakota, a small town going through an economic boom during America’s recession. Within Williston he found a remarkable subject for his film. Someone could easily adapt The Overnighters into a narrative feature, but it wouldn’t come close to matching the dramatic highs on display. It’s an extraordinary film, not only the best documentary of the year, but one of the best films to come out in 2014.
The use of fracking, a controversial technology used to extract oil, became a blessing for Williston when it opened up oil reserves near the town. Oil companies came in, handing out jobs with starting salaries in the 6-figure range. With Williston’s unemployment rate nearly wiped out, word travelled around, prompting people to start packing up their things and move in the hopes of securing a job (Moss shows a montage of YouTube clips from people across the country making their way to North Dakota). Williston became a boom town, the kind of sight one expects to see in a history book when reading about the Great Depression. And with so many new people moving in, the demand for a place to stay grew exponentially.
That’s where Jay Reinke comes into the picture. Reinke, a Pastor at the Lutheran Concordia Church, created the “overnighters” program in response to the growing need for shelter. People looking for work without a place to stay could sleep in the church until they get back on their feet, or use the parking lot to sleep in their car. Reinke looks at these people and sees an opportunity to help those in need, telling the camera how profound it is to have people from around the world coming to his doors asking for help. Moss also looks at several men staying at the church looking for work: former convict Alan, young father Keegan, and family man Michael, who left his family behind in Georgia so he could send money back to them once he finds a job.
Moss has all the makings for a feel-good story about Reinke’s virtuous actions, along with a redemption tale when it comes to the men staying in the church. Real life ends up going in another direction entirely. The murder of a local teacher by two men travelling through town looking for work sets off a feeling of hostility between Williston natives and the new arrivals. Some of the men staying at the church have criminal records, a fact the local newspaper eagerly reports, causing more worry and distress within the town. Locals begin working towards shutting down Reinke’s program, passing laws preventing people from sleeping in their vehicles. Through all of this, Reinke continues letting people into his church. “I don’t say ‘no’ very well…so it’s easier to say ‘yes’ and live with the consequences,” he says early on.
Those consequences come hard and fast once Reinke makes a decision to let one of the overnighters stay at his place instead of the church. It sets off a series of reactions that come to haunt Reinke, as slowly but surely his family and career come apart. Is Reinke selfish for his stubborn commitment to “love thy neighbour?” It’s easy to see how someone can look at Reinke’s unwavering commitment to his program and view him as admirable or ignorant. His family, especially his wife Andrea, support him no matter what, but they can’t hide the negative impact it has on their lives. At one point Andrea, on the verge of tears, quietly says “This is one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to do, and I’ll be glad when it’s done.”
Watching Reinke, his family, and his church unravel before his eyes is riveting to behold. Moss gets an incredible amount of access, filming one gripping moment after another. That’s because Moss always keeps the focus on the human aspect of the story. While Reinke continues fighting to keep helping people, Moss periodically changes the focus to Keegan, Alan or Michael. Amazingly, all three have their own compelling narrative arcs, the kind that could easily make up a separate film. There’s a universal appeal to watching all three men simply try to survive, working hard and living in trailers just so they can provide for themselves and their loved ones. The rhythmic way Moss films these segments gives a nice balance to the propulsive narrative of Reinke’s story.
And once the film starts coming to a close, The Overnighters turns into something truly great. Several subjects, including Keegan and Michael, don’t get happy endings, their fates determined more by circumstance than anything else. The way those profiles end reflects the human condition, but it’s Reinke’s last minute confession that makes for one of 2014’s biggest curveballs. It’s a revelation that redefines everything that came before it, creating a devastating and profound connection between Reinke and those he helped in the program. With that, The Overnighters comes full circle in a way that’s so unbelievable, it could only happen in real life. Films rarely make stories this great; the fact that something so inherently dramatic comes from the world of non-fiction makes this feel like a truly rare sight.