Early in 2014, many film columnists penned pieces about how, ten years after the box office behemoth of The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood studios were finally starting to embrace the dollars of Christian audiences through films that openly approached religious themes. Two films with sanctimonious declarative sentences in their titles – God’s Not Dead and Heaven is For Real – led this surge in faith-based titles. However, since those hits, audiences have abandoned films aimed at the devout, resulting in a stream of flops that included one-weekend wonders like Persecuted and The Identical.
The newest film with a religious angle is a documentary, The Overnighters. The title refers to a large group of stragglers from around the United States that found refuge on the floors and in the parking lot of a Lutheran church in the town of Williston, North Dakota. Many came to town with the promise of making a six-figure salary working on a nearby oil rig, recently unlocked by fracking. However, the large influx of Americans, predominantly men, to the boomtown left many without a place to stay and pitch their metaphorical tent.
Director Jesse Moss could have focused on any of the more than one thousand men and women who slept at the Concordia Lutheran Church, as they tried to figure out how to make ends meet, with jobs opportunities increasingly scarce. Instead, he explores the church’s pastor, Jay Reinke, who welcomed this collective into a house of God with a gracious smile and turned his church into a makeshift shelter for the homeless. As a result, The Overnighters is not just the best film made about a man’s religious convictions this year, but also the least overwrought and the most revealing. Reinke may be the most compelling character you see in any film, fictional or not, in a long while.
Reinke is a man in his fifties with a voice that could register with a man half his age, both cheerful and agreeable. He is also a man of principle, trying to to accommodate as many as the church allows – as long as they do not fight or swear. Those who have their cars can sleep in those. (Some sleep in the parking lot for months, waiting for a bed or even a spot on the floor to open up.)
He is also a reverent man who believes in second chances. At the beginning of the film, while watching the sun set on Williston, he says, “It’s easy to become a façade.” If a person has a sterling public persona, they may feel the inclination to become something less reverent in private. These words cast a haunting spell over this humanist tale, only to take greater meaning when Reinke comes under fire by his community.
The nosy neighbors’ ears perk up when they hear rumors that registered sex offenders are among these overnighters – and they wonder why a man of God would house these sinners. When the body of one person goes missing near the town, the peaceful community becomes even more wary of newcomers. To the pastor, community means welcoming strangers who need the help to get back on their feet. To others in Williston, community means growing the strong ties within.
While the jobs on the rig destroy the environment in the dusty region, the main stench the Williston community cannot stand is the new arrivals. “This is not my home any more,” one church member tells Reinke. Even the local press hound him. Instead of journalists putting the spotlight on the generosity of the pastor and his family, they wonder if the vagrants living among their community will only lead to more crime. The hostility toward the pastor becomes so extreme that in one scene, a distraught woman approaches him (and Moss, who served as the cameraman) with a rifle. Remarkably, both men stand their ground for a few moments, neither flinching.
Whereas the local newspaper frames the story through the lens of hard news, Moss is more interested in the human interest angle, focusing on the good shepherd guiding the flock. Moss actually slept at the church and lived with the overnighters as he was making the documentary, which explains why he gets such enthralling material. These broken souls, hoping for a refuge but getting little in return, find in the director a trusted friend. Sensitive to their needs, Moss has a few asides that pay tribute to their stories – one man, Alan, spent 16 years in jail and resolved to reinvent himself by being Reinke’s assistant.
Probably more so than any other film in recent memory, The Overnighters deals explicitly, but not overbearingly, with a man’s testament to his religious beliefs. Reinke does not seek to be the judge, knowing that God would grant atonement and decide a fair verdict on the men and women who carry a burden and want to be repaired. He does not think a police department should decide one’s record. Moss’s documentary routinely brings back some cryptic snippets from Reinke that he has more than sympathy for these lonely folk, but deep pathos. As Reinke explains that, “You and I are a lot more alike than we are different,” Moss holds the camera close on a two-shot, expressing how each side is on the same level, realizing their sameness and their virtue to want to understand each other better. The conversations are gripping, the subject’s mission so generous and decent, that it is hard not to be caught up in the drama.
When we hear of these sins that the pastor speaks of, the shift is surprising. (If one can offer a minor quibble, the pastor’s struggle is only examined for a few minutes, which is all too brief.) Regardless, this unexpected ending manages to cohere the themes of the story in ways that are undeniably powerful.
What makes The Overnighters so exceptionally pure and intelligent is how both Moss and his subject are devoid of a political agenda. Reinke yearns to do work that is sacred and helpful, offering bruised souls the chance to start again. Even more heartbreaking and revelatory is that Moss tries to do the same thing to the subject of his film. The doc is not just a surprising, deeply moving look at one man wrestling with his faith, but how the outward beliefs of a community shatter their interior consciousness where that faith should lie. As a representation of this religious-oriented year, no title will reign as complex or compelling.
The Overnighters is a shattering documentary and character study that doubles as a layered exploration of a community’s faith (and lack thereof).