Commenter John from Daejeon thought I should see what he described as "my favorite film of 2014," a documentary titled "The Overnighters." John writes in the comments:
Kevin, if you get a chance, please watch my favorite film of 2014, "The Overnighters," especially as it deals with religion and religious hypocrisy. I'd like your take on this modern, real-life "Grapes of Wrath" movement to the oilfields of North Dakota and the impact on the local community as well as those trying to better their lots in life.
This film ought to be required viewing in my book as it would spark a lot of uncomfortable, but necessary, conversation that most religious people prefer to avoid while they act as if these problems don't exist which writes off huge segments of fallen people that no longer fit their definition of humanity.
Personally, I can't wait for a sequel now that Saudi Arabia has flooded the world with cheap oil and caused frackers to [lay off] much of their North Dakota work force in those holier than thou communities.
Anyway, don't let those 2-percenters on Rotten Tomatoes scare you off. It still scored 5% better than "Birdman's" 93%.
So I sat down and watched. The documentary is about one pastor's attempts to help the workers—mostly men—flooding into the town of Williston, North Dakota, in search of oil-related work after the news gets out that fracking has caused an oil boom there. Jay Reinke, late-50s husband and father, is the pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, and he has opened his church's doors (not to mention its parking lot) to the neverending stream of people looking for a place to stay while they pursue what they hope will be a six-figure salary working out in the oil fields. Reinke sees himself as building a community, and he even gives this growing flock of possibly transient laborers a label: The Overnighters. As will become obvious, though, most of these folks won't be staying for only a single night.
Reinke's decision to help the newcomers causes strain on several fronts: his own congregation is upset at how these new arrivals are altering church life; the city is expressing concern as to whether safety codes are being violated by men sleeping on cots inside the church or in their cars in the church parking lot (and elsewhere in town); the arriving men, not all of whom are mentally stable, are themselves sources of conflict; the local journalists are hunting for any whiff of a scandal as they stoke the townspeople's fears that there are sex offenders among the laborers; Reinke's own family is given short shrift as the pastor feels obliged to spend more and more of his time managing his church and hosting these people, who would otherwise be homeless without him. Then suddenly, in the final quarter of the film, Reinke reveals something about himself that causes everything to collapse—right at the same time that the city decides to move against him.
It's a depressing movie, and it's bound to leave a person with very mixed feelings. Reinke himself comes off as human and horribly flawed. The men coming to town with dollar signs in their heads and fantasies about picking up high-paying work within 48 hours are quickly brought back to earth by the harsh reality of life in Williston: there's competition for those oil jobs, and all the employers are doing background checks, so not everyone can get the much-sought-after hookup. Several of the men that Reinke tries to help are former addicts and/or felons, and the documentary shows what happens to their relationship with Reinke when they either fall off the wagon (as happened with one of Reinke's closest assistants at the church) or fail to reveal certain facts about their legal history when applying for work (as happened with one gentleman that Reinke hosted in his own home). In such cases, Reinke has little choice but to cast such errant sheep out of the fold; this makes for very unpleasant viewing.
If we take the documentary as a character study about Reinke himself, it's fair to ask just how sympathetic a character he is. Director Jesse Moss manages to catch some uncomfortably private moments throughout the film, and it becomes obvious that not everyone around Reinke views him as a man of warmth, honesty, and integrity. Reinke himself, both at the very beginning of the movie and at its end, notes that there's a disparity between his public and private selves—something he attributes, at the start, to the demands of being a minister but which, by the end, may in reality be more a function of his own tendency to hide certain discomfiting truths from others.
The local church, Concordia Lutheran, doesn't come off looking all that compassionate, either. Its members' feathers are quickly ruffled by the presence of these big, burly guys sleeping in the sanctuary, in the hallways, and in the multipurpose rooms. Members are leaving as a result, and the next rung up in the local Lutheran hierarchy gets called in, at one point, to mediate the congregation's inner conflict. Complaints revolve around claims that the workers' cell phones go off during the services, that the workers themselves tend to slouch or otherwise act uncouth at worship time, and that their presence is a general nuisance that's causing the cohesiveness of the main congregation to fray. Pastor Reinke listens to these complaints with patience and aplomb, wondering aloud about what, exactly, is so provocative about granting mere floor space to those in need of a place to stay a while. "Who is my neighbor, and how can I serve him?" is Reinke's refrain.
In the end, several factors come together to undo the entire Overnighters program. One dogged journalist (or so it's implied) publicly reveals the fact that Reinke is hosting a known sex offender in his own home (Reinke and his family all claim to feel safe around this man); the city declares that Concordia Lutheran is in violation of certain safety codes even as Williston mulls a ban on RVs in various parts of town; Reinke's right-hand man falls off the wagon (meth), gets ejected from the flock, and declares himself Reinke's enemy from now on. On top of all that, as the film is about to draw to a close, Reinke confesses that he's been hiding his homosexuality for years. He expresses sadness about what all of this means for his family; we, as viewers, now perhaps shocked and flabbergasted, can't help but wonder what the past two years were all about after this glimpse into Reinke's deepest soul.
Thus does the world implode around Jay Reinke. The Overnighters is dead as a program, and the pastor himself has deeply wounded his family and lost his congregation (he ends up resigning his ministry). Reinke himself is no sex offender and no pervert: he's simply a closeted gay man who is finally outing himself. The moment he confesses all this to his wife is hard to watch, and I'm not sure whether to congratulate or excoriate the documentary's director for pointing his camera's unblinking eye right at that moment and not looking away. I can tell you that I sure as hell wanted to look away; Reinke's wife doubtless felt betrayed on multiple levels. (The film leaves unresolved the question of whether the Reinkes got divorced or chose to forge ahead as a family. We also don't have the chance to witness the children's reactions to Reinke's difficult confession.) I suppose cynics will claim to be unsurprised by Reinke's revelation; if you're already predisposed to seeing clergy as somehow sexually suspect, then I guess Reinke's self-outing merely confirms your prejudices.
The documentary provides us with no simple answers, which may be why dedicated commenter John from Daejeon liked this film as much as he did. What is the church? In Williston, is it a force for good or a source of contention and strife—a haven for sex offenders and other criminals? Who is Pastor Reinke? Is he a hero who tried to help his neighbor, or is he a glory-seeking, egomaniacal liar with a hidden agenda? I'm with John on this one: "The Overnighters" is an excellent, must-see documentary. It's hard to watch, hard to fathom, and it presents humanity in all of its bizarre, paradoxical, frustrating, noble, and base complexity.
According to Box Office Mojo, the documentary—which has won some prestigious awards—has made barely $110,000 in American theaters. It won't be seen by many. It won't have the impact that the director might have been seeking. Then again, with the movie's message so open to interpretation, it's hard to know what sort of impact the movie would have had if it had managed to garner a wider audience.
ADDENDUM: check out this Buzzfeed article as well; it gives more background on Moss, Reinke, and the movie. Justin Chang's perceptive review for Variety is here.