The Overnighters (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Overnighters (2014)

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The North Dakota fracking boom is bringing in men from all over the country looking for work.  In Williston, the sudden influx of people has resulted in vagrants cluttering up the city property as they have nowhere to go.  Pastor Jay Reinke, trying to do good by Christ, opens the doors of his church to these men.  But as more men come piling in from out-of-state the community grows anxious and suspicious of the vagrants, and as the suspicion grows so does the focus on Pastor Jay, who may have more hidden than anyone could realize.  Jesse Moss directs The Overnighters.

The Overnighters is available to rent on Amazon and Vimeo, and for Netflix subscribers is currently available for instant viewing.

Forced to give inI'm fascinated by movies which explore what it means to have true Christian faith in these modern times.  One of my favorite movies of the last year, Calvary, challenged a small town priest with a congregation who come who his sermons out or boredom rather than faith.  In The Overnighters, the church is filled with many true believers every week, but the question is whether they put their beliefs into practice or not.  Pastor Jay Reinke is a true believer, and a man who puts his faith to practice in ways that seem unreasonable to others but to him is the will of Christ.  Much of what we see in The Overnighters is Christ-like, but when facts come to light and the Pastor's actions come under closer scrutiny his sacrificial actions may have motivations outside the Bible.

The Overnighters is painful, and infuriating, because it presents the story of so many people, some good and some bad, yet only Pastor Jay seems to have the strength to practice the faith he preaches.  Part of what makes The Overnighters so frustrating is that the people who aren't behaving in a very Christ-like fashion aren't being unreasonable.  One key scene about halfway through the film shows one of his parishioners who claims that what these drifters are doing is coming to their town to, "...rape, pillage, burn, and leave."  It's true the transient workers aren't the easiest bunch to get along with, but automatically associating them with a band of marauders with no conscience is going too far.  What surprised me about Pastor Jay is his response to this woman is to simply glare.

This is one of many scenes where director Jesse Moss must have recognized he landed a complicated case when it comes to Pastor Jay.  While he spends so much of his on-screen time trying to do the right thing for people, he is still subject to the impulses and emotions which all humans face.  That confrontation comes after he cleans up glass which the men shattered in his parking lot, which we can easily fit into the selfless category.  But this woman, even though her words are harsh, is reasonable if not exactly Christian in saying these smelly men need to leave her church.  Pastor Jay's response, to glare and not try to empathize, is not exactly Christian either.

Pastor Jay's passion and empathy brings in people from all over the country, but few change positively during their time with the Pastor.

Pastor Jay's passion and empathy brings in people from all over the country, such as Alan here, but few change positively during their time with the Pastor.  Whether it's his fault or not is one of the questions.

What The Overnighters does is ask the very question I posed at the beginning - what does it mean to be a good Christian?  One of the things Moss does to earn my respect for the complexity of the question is right up front say it may be impossible.  He does this with a series of shots and a voice-over from Pastor Jay which sounds like a lost scene from The Searchers.  To maintain his public persona, and his private faith, he must section off aspects of himself to an end where, "The result is always pain."  There are obvious sources of this pain from the struggles he has from the community, who want his act of charity to stop, and the subtle pressures from his wife, who suspects Pastor Jay's actions are starting a cycle which may never be broken.

As the various conflicts play out, Moss eye for knowing which to edit in and which to leave out become a crucial component in The Overnighters' success.  There are so many good stories Moss becomes a witness to that any one of them could have been spun out into its own feature, but what Moss does is show the gradual effect Pastor Jay's choices are having not only on the community, but the vagrant men themselves.  One heartbreaking moment is as purely Christian as anything Jesus could have done when Todd, a man whose struggled with addiction and violence, breaks down in front of Pastor Jay and tells him every bad thought in his head.  Pastor Jay just listens, let's Todd have his moment, and when it is finally silent reaches over to hug the poor man until he feels well enough to go on.

But there's another story going on underneath the Christian charity of Pastor Jay which we only get fleeting glimpses of before some of his true nature is revealed in the last act.  Consider the story of Alan, a man who we first meet smiling and helping out one of the new overnighters nervous about his record by assuring him, "I've done some bad stuff, so it's all good."  What happens to Alan from this point, where he's all smiles and friendliness, to the Alan who is yelling at Pastor Jay about the Pastor's selfishness and hypocrisy.  We wonder, what's going on behind the cameras, why is the Pastor making room for sex offenders in his home, and why do so many men seem to leave in worse shape than when they arrived?

Even if Pastor Jay comes under suspicion for some activities, I never once doubted his commitment to acting in a way which would please Christ.

Even if Pastor Jay comes under suspicion for his activities, I never once doubted his commitment to acting in a way which would please Christ.

The answers to those questions lay on the edges of The Overnighters.  Pastor Jay seems so wonderfully human at first, laying out what he expects the men to do while they're sleeping in his church but most importantly, "You want to stay on my good side, don't spill coffee on the carpet."  Then he sometimes says great things and encourages strength, countering a city vote to kick out the vagrants if they're in the city for more than 28 days by saying, "The last thing we need to do is serve our fear."  But what do we make of his nervous expression when he can't answer a reporter's question about the registered sex offender he has living in his home.  Then there's a curious line which almost went unnoticed by me but provides a critical bit of back story when his wife says, "When I met him, he had an 18-year old Native American guy living in his basement."  This is how the Pastor has always been, but just what is he?

Just as important as the scenes with Pastor Jay are the moments we spend with the people who have come to his church for help.  Michael is the saddest of them all, a sweet kid who tries to be brave when he's told that he'll get used to the chemicals he has to work with eventually, and despite sessions of video chat with his children and attempts to move them to North Dakota he can't convince his wife to stay.  Their labor is not respected, the people of the town don't want them there, and the Pastor's motivations become more questionable with each passing day.  Then the last act starts with an admission to the Pastor which is, on its own, in no way sinful - but the way it implicates his involvement with some of the men he helped is.

To say The Overnighters is complex does not do the film justice.  It's about many things - the underbelly of the American economy, the horrible way we treat laborers who are responsible for keeping the country going, what it means to be a true Christian, and the way certain forms of bigotry have a way of warping an otherwise good person over the years until they're convinced they see a monster in the mirror and not a healthy human being.  Pastor Jay, sadly a pastor no longer, aspired to be a good Christian and for a long time he was doing a damn good job working for the Lord.  But he's human, and The Overnighters shows how far he can fall with the rest of us.

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Tail - The OvernightersThe Overnighters (2014)

Directed by Jesse Moss.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Absolutely loved this film. Such a layered and endlessly compelling piece of cinema.

    • Thank you for the comment Courtney. It was compelling enough with Pastor Jay’s struggles, but with all the late film revelations everyone’s actions get thrown into a new light. There are so many readings possible with this.

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