THE OVERNIGHTERS, a devastatingly sad documentary directed by Jesse Moss, focuses on a town effected by the oil boom in North Dakota. Seemingly everyone is moving there with hopes of landing a six figure job aiding and abetting in fracking the environment. But this is not a piece whose purpose is to examine the ecological effects this has on the community of Wilmot, ND. We are instead introduced to Pastor Jay Reinke, an incredibly selfless individual who willingly risks the ire of his ministry not to mention the wrath of his neighbors by housing seemingly hundreds of homeless people looking for a job. There aren’t enough rooms. There isn’t enough floor space. Heck, people are sleeping in their cars and trailers and yet there isn’t enough parking. But he continues to take them in anyway even if that necessitates using his own home at the risk of losing the support of his stretched-too-thin family.
In essence, THE OVERNIGHTERS would be a modern update of the story of Job if the narrative was fictional. But that it ain’t. So what we witness are the trials and tribulations of some of the people who accept Reinke’s charity. Initially, we hear tales of second chances. Of attempts to escape from questionable pasts and find that silver lining in North Dakota. At first we see some success stories starting to happen. Certain subjects manage to not only find jobs, but homes and gain promotions as well. But things in THE OVERNIGHTERS do not end well for everyone. Including Pastor Jay Reinke himself.
Moss’ film makes for some compelling viewing indeed. And a lot of questions are raised as to how far can one’s charity go and where do you draw the ethical line when it comes to being a good Christian. Because as sympathetic as Reinke is for a hard luck case, not all of these visitors are “good” people. Some are convicted felons. And as we later find out, some are registered sex offenders. One of whom is staying in Reinke’s house. The fact that Reinke is aware of this suggest complicity on his part in not only disrespecting the concerns of the community but disregarding the safety of his family as well (he has two young daughters and a son). But Reinke is so damn affable in his conviction. He really wants to be a good man.
If one wanted to paint Reinke as having a touch of the delusional, it becomes apparent that he might be struggling with demons of his own. And while I admire THE OVERNIGHTERS’ attempts at providing all sides of the story (at one point we want to root for Reinke but then we see some of the more negative, disrespectful acts being perpetrated by some of his guests), the film starts to err on the side of the xenophobic mindset. Intentionally or no, not one subject covered in THE OVERNIGHTERS has a happy ending. And Reinke’s own undoing comes about from trying to cover up for those that have really shady backgrounds. His refusal to respond to a persistent journalist’s questioning over the registered sex offender staying at his home is absolutely cringe worthy and unbearable to witness. And then the cracks begin to show. The stress this has on Reinke results in some questionable thinking which in turn provokes resentment. And eventually betrayal. It now becomes a question of whether Reinke is in over his head.
The story behind the documentary seems just as interesting. Apparently Moss stayed at Reinke’s ministry along with everyone else for a year and a half. Which explains some of the more intimate exchanges that happen in the film (like how Reinke is captured tucking someone in while they turn in for the night — sleeping on a hallway floor). And throughout all of the frustration and sadness portrayed on the screen, the film does display some humor (at one point Reinke asks a lodger if he could cut his hair so as to not freak out the neighbors. The lodger replies “Jesus didn’t cut his hair.” To which Reinke responds “Jesus didn’t have neighbors like these.”). But Moss seems determined to go after the meaty, dramatic stuff. It’s as if by focusing on the more depressing threads, this would make for a more compelling film. And then there is a final twist that left me completely unsettled.
I won’t spoil it for you, but it did leave the same bad taste in my mouth after watching Henry Joost’s and Ariel Schulman’s CATFISH. Where I was no longer struggling with the questions of what is right or wrong when it comes to selfless charity and found myself questioning the film maker’s motives instead. Where the potentially unethical character in all of this is Moss himself. A confrontation occurs that involves a revelation. And it is clear that the receiver of this shocking news was not prepared for this to happen on camera. It’s too invasive even for documentary film making. Obviously things turned out alright for Moss in the end as he likely got the permission he needed to use this footage. But it feels wrong (whereas in AN HONEST LIAR, they make it very clear to the audience that that film’s subject gave them permission to use everything). On the surface, Moss seems to save this bit for last as way to possibly explain the psychology behind Reinke’s motivation. That maybe all of this is about doing penance for his “sin.” But it backfires and calls attention to how an ethical line can be crossed when it comes to documenting a real person’s existence on film.
THE OVERNIGHTERS has been picked up by Drafthouse Films but no release date is set as of yet. That final moment aside, the film is well worth checking out. While not the most uplifting of stories, THE OVERNIGHTERS does bring up some very thought provoking questions for which there are no easy answers. Whether it is regarding faith or the basic desire to just be a decent human being. And how sometimes there is such a thing as too much giving.