Film Reviews

REVIEW: The Overnighters

Hot Docs 2014

The Overnighters
USA, 100 min.
Directed by Jesse Moss
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)

Recently, I met a guy from North Dakota who told me he was earning about $80,000 a year working shifts at Starbuck’s and Best Buy. Hourly wages skyrocketed when the oil industry started fracking in 2008, and The Peace Garden State became the U.S.’s second largest oil-producer.

Jesse Moss’s The Overnighters, Sundance winner of a Special Jury Prize for “Intuitive Filmmaking,” moves in close on its protagonist, a Lutheran pastor who opens up his church to out-of-state workers who hope to make big bucks from the oil rush, and have no place to live. Apparently acting on fundamental Christian principles, Jay Reinke invites total strangers to sleep in church hallways and camp in the parking lot.

But Moss’s doc, which he directed and filmed solo, is no feel-good picture about a virtuous man and his good deeds. For one thing, Reinke’s determined good samaritanism strains his wife and kids, and increasingly alienates his congregation and the town of Williston where his Concordia Lutheran Church is located.

The Overnighters deftly follows its riveting story arc from our initial impressions of Reinke’s determined benevolence to a disturbing reveal that doesn’t come as a complete surprise. Along the way, the pastor grapples with dilemmas like the fact that some of the overnighters have done time and are on sex offenders’ lists.

An elegantly achieved balance between talking heads and cinéma vérité, The Overnighters has a classic American look. (Several critics have been reminded of films made from Steinbeck novels like The Grapes of Wrath.)

In a culminating shot, Moss frames Reinke in the doorway of a ruined building looking out at lush green fields like a character in a John Ford film. It’s an introspective moment. Perhaps this articulate, persuasive, and engaging man is questioning himself and his motives. The film plays on ambiguities. Reinke is a decent person who needs to act on his religious convictions rather than merely propagate them in sermons. But maybe, as one of the overnighters says, he is capable of falling into an egotistical saviour trip. And when we get to Reinke’s on-camera confession at the end, we realize how troubled and even tormented he is. We also note that Moss might have held back information about the pastor’s relationships with the men under his care.

Visit POV’s Hot Docs Hub for more reviews and features on the 2014 festival.

Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

View all articles by Maurie Alioff »