Words: Brody Rossiter
LAND OF OPPORTUNITY
Fear is a potent and unrelenting emotion. In some cases fear is a useful tool; a means of recognising and avoiding the dangers which lie in wait. In other cases fear falsifies a belief, creating an irrational suspicion of that which doesn’t wish to, or ultimately cannot, hurt us, hence “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself”. However, when you’re stood at the threshold of a long, dark tunnel through which you must pass to reach your destination, there’s no way of truly knowing whether that fear is justified or not.
The Overnighters is a 2014 documentary feature from director, Jesse Moss, following the crowds of desperate and predominantly male Americans who travel to North Dakota and the town of Williston with the hope of finding employment within its oil rich fracking industry. The pictures primary vessel of storytelling comes in the form of tireless Lutheran pastor, Jay Reinke, who takes these mentally, physically and financially broken men into his church and community through his “overnighters” program – regardless of whether that community likes it or not. These men, some carrying criminal convictions upon their backs alongside the worn-out rucksacks and sleeping bags, have journeyed far and wide to reach what they to be their salvation. Some are homeless, some are living in their cars and campers, some arrive with, and some arrive without their families in toe. However, whatever form these men may take, they are ultimately seen as an invading force encroaching upon this remote and once peaceful land and Reinke is the man facilitating this invasion.
The microcosmic nature of The Overnighters’ engrossingly real narrative carries with it themes, subject matter, and perhaps most importantly, emotions shared across the entirety of 21st century America. The primary of those emotions being fear; fear of the unknown; fear of losing stability; fear of not being able to survive without a home or source of income. A clear cut between protagonists and antagonists is never established. Moss carefully and fairly presents all sides of the argument whether these new arrivals should be allowed to enter and remain en masse through his portraits of a variety of both locals and outsiders. These individuals and their hard-hitting depictions will ultimately shape many contrasting opinions, but the encouragement of feverish debate – and perhaps the inability to truly find a solution to the circle of plight which lassoes Williston – is the pictures most compelling element alongside its depiction of Reinke’s increasingly futile fight to help these men build a future regardless of their past sins.
For those who don’t carry the same degree of faith as Pastor Reinke, whether that is faith in the omnipotence of a higher power or faith in the individuals he welcomes into both his hometown and personal residence, it’s easy to accuse him of unnecessarily endangering his community’s way of life – ranging from spiritual to physical wellbeing. Those accusations are rooted in both the realities of the past crimes of these outsiders and the somewhat unfounded fear mongering which slowly festers and subdues the “indigenous” residents of the area thanks to press activity and isolated incidents of criminality. A prime example of this arises when the pastor invites a registered sex offender into his home, an offender whose crimes are ultimately confirmed yet accepted and highlighted as morally lesser by Reinke (an eighteen-year-old man consensually sleeping with his sixteen-year-old girlfriend) than crimes which would be considered unquestionably heinous – nevertheless some offenders’ past are undeniably violent and brutal in nature. The incendiary subject of past sexual crimes and press coverage of those histories eventually becomes major focus of the film and a point of no return for the local residents while also acting as a key identifier to the fact that for many a new beginning just isn’t possible
The third and final act of The Overnighters brings with it earth-shattering revelations that shift dynamics and draw parallels between characters on both ends of the societal spectrum – bringing them and their situations closer together than ever before. This isolated study of one town’s struggle to accept and adapt becomes a much grander meditation of a great nation in great peril as its promises of the American dream grow increasingly hollow. An expertly crafted documentary and example of Cinéma vérité at its most compelling, The Overnighters offers little resolution or comfort in its conclusion, yet lays out the many painful and cruel consequences of its journey for the entire world to see.