The Overnighters

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday October 10, 2014

Pastor Jay Reinke, in a scene from 'The Overnighters'
Pastor Jay Reinke, in a scene from 'The Overnighters'  (Source:Drafthouse Films)

Given the state of the national economy, it's no surprise that workers desperately seeking to bolster their fortunes would be willing to flock in droves to wherever the good-paying jobs are. Neither is it surprising when far too many job seekers arrive in small towns and upset the local residents.

North Dakota's fracking industry is one source of good jobs (the controversial nature of the practice itself notwithstanding). In the town of Williston, ND, Pastor Jay Reineke of Concordia Lutheran Church attempts to minister to the men and women who came knocking at the church's door. Desperate, with nowhere else to turn, they would seem obvious candidates to receive Christian charity. However, the church's neighbors, and even the congregation, alarmed at this influx of strangers, soon have had enough of Reinke's "Overnighters" program. The pastor ran the "Overnighters" program for two years, with increasing hostility directed at his efforts; filmmaker Jesse Moss is there with his camera to capture the program's disintegration, and that of Pastor Jay along with it.

Moss's lens is present for some startling moments: An embittered man who now feels discarded by Pastor Jay warns that he's "vindictive," and outlines a campaign of revenge to discredit the pastor and his ministry. A similarly alienated former right-hand-man once entrusted to run the program in Pastor Jay's absence sabotages Jay's attempt to retrieve an RV from the property of a seething, rifle-waving young woman. A local reporter chases the pastor up the street, yapping obnoxious questions at him after getting wind that the "Overnighters" program might be sheltering one or more sex offenders. Pastor Jay himself occasionally skirts close to the edge of losing his cool under mounting pressures, and as the town's suspicion and resentment grows, one recipient of the program's helping hand chafes at being characterized by Williston's locals as "homeless." "I'm not homeless," he says. "I'm struggling. I have a home in Kentucky. I just want a better life."

Overall, this documentary is not very friendly toward the locals. Again and again we see them carping and accusing; one neighbor dismisses the desperate men at the church as "trash," while a woman complains, "These people come, and they rape, pillage, and burn, and then they leave." Is she talking about the oil companies, or the workforce that's arrived en masse to service the needs of the oil companies? Context suggests she's lumping them both into the same alarming category of "The Other."

Nevertheless, context and completeness are missing throughout much of the film. What Moss shows us has a raw, powerful affect -- too raw; often, it's hard to piece details together, and there's a feeling that the picture we're given is skewed and distorted by the way the footage is edited. Significant holes are left in the narrative, forcing the viewer to rely on surmise. And when a late-breaking revelation emerges about Reinke himself, it feels totally out of left field; the new twist has the power to devastate the pastor both personally and professionally, but feels disconnected from the film's main story lines. (If it is directly connected, we're not given what we need to understand how.)

This film, with tighter focus and a more straightforward narrative, might have been a searing portrait of how the dictates of faith -- serving those in need, living charitably -- can become hazards to those who attempt to live them, as easier modes of morality take hold and communities shun, rather than welcome, those who arrive at their doorstep.

But so sketchy is the material as it's presented here that finally it's hard to know whether Pastor Reinke is a modern saint throwing himself mightily against apathy and social neglectfulness, or a whack job in his own right: At one point, under increasing pressure from all sides, Reinke declares that those riding with him in his vehicle should jump our and wave at a passing Amtrak train. The moment is more than a little out of place, and is signifies an increasing fuzziness about who's who and what's going on. By the end of this film, one's not sure where one's sympathies ought to lie; be it feature film or documentary, that's never a good sign.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.