“Did they ask Jesus to cut his hair?” “Jesus didn’t have our neighbors.”
Non-fiction filmmaking has a long history of introducing us to fascinating people such as Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. of Mr. Death, Billy Mitchell of The King of Kong, and the kids of Spellbound. To this array of people more fascinating than most fictional creations, we can add Jay Reinke, a Lutheran pastor who becomes the central figure in Jesse Moss’ stellar examination of the intersection of charity and reality, The Overnighters. A film that begins as a Steinbeckian piece on what happens to a community in the recession, when jobs literally sprout up out of the oil-rich ground, becomes something much deeper as it progresses, particularly after a final-act revelation that should force conversation on the way out of the theater.
Williston, North Dakota has become a modern Deadwood after fracking uncovered an oil vein that led to a job explosion in this small town. People have come from across the country, looking for work that they couldn’t find at home: Young men, old men, convicts, and saints – trying to find a job and with no place to live. Pastor Reinke believes that the foundation of his religion is to help his fellow man. How could he turn away hard-working homeless people just looking for the safety of a floor on which to sleep? Is he committing a crime by allowing convicts to sleep in their campers and cars in his parking lot? Reinke asks for donations, help around the church, and, of course, attendance at his sermons on Sundays, but that’s it. He offers counsel, helps with resumes, and seems to honestly care about the people he’s taken in through his “Overnighters” program.
It seems cut and dry, right? Would you feel the same as a community member? How about after a woman is found dead near Concordia Lutheran Church from two out-of-towners in 2012? As crime rates rise, journalists pounce on the story, and as the men seem to be getting more attention than the long-committed members of the parish, The Overnighters becomes a challenging commentary on the impact of our current economic crisis on more than just the unemployed. It is not “their story.” Economic issues within a community and our society as a whole impact us all.
Reinke is forced to face increasingly heated challenges to his program from the community and from within his parish. Even other members of the Overnighters start to wonder what he’s thinking, and the film takes a sharp turn, when Reinke moves a registered sex offender into his home and doesn’t tell the other church elders of his plans. He’s doing it to avoid the spotlight that could be cast on him from the local media, but is it a wise move, especially with two kids in his house? And even if you believe the man is reformed, the secrecy of it all adds to the sense that Reinke knows he’s doing something that won’t be condoned. And Reinke’s motives become increasingly suspect as former Overnighters question his tactics. He can be judge, jury, and executioner – expelling those from the program who he believes have broken his rules.
Reinke is not the only fascinating subject of The Overnighters, as Moss and editor Jeff Gilbert sketch an amazing portrait of this unusual community just by their brief introductions to a few key players in it. When one hears the joy in a young man’s voice as he tells his girlfriend that he’s been upgraded to a supervisory position, something he probably never imagined before, one can’t help but think that Reinke has done some measurable good in this world. When another man feels burned by Reinke, told that he was loved and now discarded due to rule violations, Moss turns the film in another direction. This is a masterfully directed piece of work, akin to Errol Morris in the way that it presents a full picture without judgment.
And then there’s that final twist, which I won’t spoil, but certainly casts Reinke’s motives in a new light. Moss and his crew won an award from Sundance for “intuitive filmmaking,” and I love that phrase in that it’s so clearly what separates great films like The Overnighters from average documentaries. Moss lets his characters and their stories unfold, crafting a film from them intuitively through the right interview questions and the art of editing, but never placing a narrative on it that feels forced. In the end, we see bits and pieces of ourselves in both Reinke and the community members who feel invaded by outsiders. We can identify with the men who sleep on the floor of Concordia Church and those forced out of the controversial program. Moss doesn’t judge any of them. Why should you?