In director Jesse Moss’s The Overnighters, fact and fiction bleed into a sometimes aesthetically questionable, but consistently compelling interrogation of the ever-diminishing space for social ethics and Christian-based morality within state-level governmental order. Jay Reinke is a Williston, North Dakota pastor, creator of an “overnighters” program that seeks to shelter out-of-state or homeless men looking for work in the local oil fields. The arrangement comes under fire once locals start claiming there are convicted thieves, drug addicts, rapists, and murderers being housed by the church. Moss handles these details not with talking heads or intertitles, but an observational mode that remains largely immersed within the walls of the local church, with Moss turning his camera on hundreds of men who desire economic rejuvenation and religious redemption.
That basic premise, it turns out, is only the starting point for the much larger portrait of American destitution Moss has in mind, not simply relegating his aims to humanizing criminals, but roaming the whole of Williston, including the neighborhoods, football fields, and city council meetings, where Reinke desperately tries to keep the means for sustaining his efforts alive. Reinke is given complex portraiture by Moss, as a man driven by his religious affiliations, certainly, but compassionate and articulate beyond simply quoting Bible verses and reading scripture. He truly recognizes the secular, social nature of his struggle. When he tells an overnighter that it would be a good idea to cut his hair, the man replies, “Did Jesus have short hair?” Reinke quickly retorts: “Jesus didn’t have our neighbors.” Moss uses the exchange as a piece in a larger tapestry of small-town nightmares made real by nationwide strife.
There are numerous, memorable “overnighters” who emerge throughout, such as Keith, a registered sex offender whom Reinke invites into his home, drawing the ire and suspicion of a local reporter as crime rates spike and locals stage protests. There’s also Todd, a recovering drug addict that bears his tortured soul to Reinke in a prolonged exchange. Intricate cutting and reframing, along with on-the-nose dialogue, potentially suggests a staging of various exchanges, but Moss’s ability to capture nuanced, emotive revelations render these concerns moot. What eludes him, however, is a more exhaustive grappling with those most threatened by these men: local women. There are gestures made: a news broadcast reveals a local teacher was raped and murdered by two transient, job-seeking men; another local woman expresses concern for her teenage daughter, who lives near the church; and Andrea, Reinke’s wife, is given sporadic on-screen time to express support for her husband, but given little space in absence of him. Instead, Reinke remains the focus, including a late admission of marital infidelity that renders his efforts as a “broken” man more palpable because of his empathy, if contrived due to the detail’s 11th-hour emergence. If The Overnighters ultimately can’t reconcile all that’s presented in its too-brief runtime, that’s largely because its situation, much like the dissonance between those involved, is comprehensibly irresolvable.