North Dakota is booming. Fracking has opened up huge oil reserves and drawn jobseekers for all over America. As The Overnighters begins we see a series of grainy home videos showing people from all corners of America – Kentucky, Wisconsin, Mississipi – packing their bags, reassuring themselves with rumours of people getting jobs in one or two hours; people getting recruited as they step off the bus. The coupling of an oil boomtown and a depressed economy attracts the destitute, and the hopeful: “People with ten felonies are getting one hundred grand a year just ‘cos they tough enough”.
In the midst of all this is the town Williston, and the Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke. Jesse Moss, camera on shoulder, trails the pastor as he converts his church into a shelter for the often homeless migrants. Most arrive with just one bag slung over their shoulder. The illusion does not last: they soon realise jobs are not so easy to come by, and house prices have shot up with the demand. The film opens as Reinke, a real-life Ned Flanders, chirps hymns and glides through the corridors of his church – bright and early – waking up the snoring piles of men who are scattered just about everywhere. He is carefully Christian, welcoming everyone, regardless of whether they are “broken” or “sinners”.
At first his congregation are welcoming, but the mood soon begins to turn. This documentary largely skirts around addressing the ecological aspects of fracking, or the increasingly macho environment of a town where the gender balance has been skewed dramatically, fuelling sexual violence. The men – often boys, really – gun cars, drink beers and talk women around fires, and even ‘fish’ for birds with bread on their hooks. We see glimpses of the local’s feelings through newspaper headlines blaring about the sex offenders cruising into town, and in the rare moments the camera can be drawn away from Reinke.
Reinke is a fascinating study, though, and this documentary is really half about him. As the film draws on, as the tensions mount and his position weakens, he increasingly reveals his fears to the camera. His willingness to do this, and some of what he says, invites suspicion, and he has clearly watched the mega-pastors on the big stage longingly in the past. But, in spite of the trite rhetoric, he remains oddly compelling. He has that overwhelming earnestness, eyes peering over his glasses by turns imploring and understanding – understanding you in a way you have never been understood before – which is quite mesmerising. By the end the confessional aspect becomes quite bizarre, even intrusive, as secrets are revealed which reframe much of what passed before: “The public persona, you can believe that, and the private becomes something else. The result is always pain.”
The pastor’s mission soon becomes his trial and at first, you feel, this is how he likes it. It is his cross to bear as he squares up to the press, the city hall, and mutiny in his congregation. These scenes are both understated and remarkable as the community closes ranks against the drifters who do not want “to build anything”. They try to reconcile their lack of charity with their Christianity. One of the workers cannot believe it: “Everyone deserves a chance, this is America, this is what this country was founded on you know – helping your neighbour, just being good people”.
This documentary is both a story about one man’s state of faith and a study of contemporary America. Moss, priced out of the Williston hotels, lived with Reinke’s family throughout and has made something that manages to be intimate and epic. Some of the film’s weaker moments include the drippy portraits of the men, overlaid with cloying music. These are unnecessary attempts to strike sympathy in a film that is as dramatic as any fiction film, and lead by its own unlikely star man.