What is the role of a church? What is the role of a pastor? What is the role of a congregation? Is the Sheppard responsible for governing the sheep or has society evolved to a point where it is now the other way around? One of the foundations of any religion is to help those who are in need, but ultimately whose shoulders does that responsibility really fall on? These are just a few of the questions I found myself wrestling with while watching Jesse Moss’ brilliantly complex and moving film The Overnighters.
Moss’ film explores how the economic downturn impacted the small community of Williston, North Dakota. While many around the US were losing their jobs, Williston had a surprising boom in their oil industries. People from all over the States started flocking to Williston in hopes of finding jobs. As one man in the film put it “even criminals could make six figures if they [were] strong enough.” Despite the fact that the work available consisted of tough and dirty manual labor, Williston became a symbol of hope for thousands.
Looking for a glimmer of light in their dark lives, many travelled to Williston without even a place to stay. This is where Pastor Jay Reinke comes in. Opening up his church to out-of-towners seeking shelter, Reinke not only offers floor space to sleep, but also goes out of his way to offer job-finding resources. As word spreads about Reinke’s generosity, more and more people fill the hallways and parking lot each night looking for a place to rest. However, Reinke’s actions do not sit well with the locals, especially Reinke’s once loyal congregation.
Trying to quell the fears of the locals who view these outsiders as nothing more than criminals and sexual predators, Reinke is force to work long hours in hopes of balancing the demands of his congregation and helping those in his “the overnighters” program succeed. This ultimately impacts Reinke’s personal life, as he slowly starts to lose sight of his role as a father and husband. As tensions rise, questions begin to surface not only regarding the overnighters, but Reinke himself. Is he driven by dedication to Ministry? Ego? Or is there something else at play?
The Overnighters is a wonderful exploration of the complicated nature of humanity and faith. Through its examination of Reinke, the film effectively captures how damaged society can be. Socially, financially, and spiritually we are broken in ways that we are too blind to see. One thing I loved about the film was the way in which Moss’ highlights the hypocrisy of faith without ever taking aim at any one particular religion. Though the idea of the church being a sacred and holy place is on the mind of many in Williston, few in Reinke’s flock seem willing to embrace everything that the institution in theory should stand for. They seem more concerned with ensuring that their church remains in pristine condition rather than helping those really in need.
This fact is not lost on Moss either. He skillfully juxtaposes many of the regular homes, and a few luxurious mansions, in Williston with the crowed church parking lot and overstuffed RV trailer parks. Of course, The Overnighters does not excuse Reinke’s role in this as well. Observing the way in which Reinke starts to bend the rules, it is hard not to question if Reinke is serving God or trying to play god? As the film unfolds we see Reinke unravel in an unexpected, and jarring, way. After all his house of cards can only withstand so much pressure.
By the time we reach the stunning ending of The Overnighters, it becomes clear that finding the answers to the questions raised in the film are equally profound and complex. Moss shows how religion, humanity and the economy are all intricately wrapped like a ball of yarn around Williston and many other communities. Engaging, moving, and deeply thought-provoking, The Overnighters is one of the best films you will see this year.
Friday, May 2, 7:00 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox