[Preamble: I saw "The Overnighters" before touching down in Park City last Sunday, which meant I saw it kinda in a vacuum. When I got to the Festival, I wasn't hugely surprised that "The Overnighters" was the doc I was hearing the most buzz about. At that point, I'd written the intro to the review, the part that precedes the page break. I never finished the review, because Sundance is all about starting reviews that I never finish. It's fun! Anyway, I'm expecting "The Overnighters" to be a big winner at Saturday night's closing awards ceremony, so I'm taking one last stab at the review.]
Jesse Moss' "The Overnighters," featured in the US Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival, plays at times like a modern frontier Western.
Like HBO's classic "Deadwood" or AMC's much-admired [by the people who pop up in online comments whenever its renewed] "Hell on Wheels" or Discovery's decent new miniseries "Klondike," it's the story of a migration of desperate men, many of them criminals and reprobates, seeking riches in the unspoiled wilderness. Like most Westerns, there seem to be fortunes to be made, but the brass ring remains just out of reach for most settlers. Like many a Western, there are clashes with the natives, who feel like they're being disenfranchised by the scruffy, dirty, dangerous men pushing in on their land. And, like more than a few Westerns, there's a wacky priest at the heart of the story, trying to save souls in the influx of sinners.
I may be overselling "The Overnighters" with that description. Moss' film is slightly at war with itself, trying to tell two stories, not necessarily arcing either story satisfactorily and then relying on what's presented as a somewhat strange twist in the final act to tie the whole thing up in a bow that either makes the whole movie feel too neat or too messy, depending on how you view it. [A couple critics I've talked to have said that they don't think Moss is trying to use the twist to tie things up or explain them. I think that in terms of authorial intent, they're right. However, I know how the story presented on the screen arcs. Causation is implied, even if it's not intended.]
And the more I think back on "The Overnighters," the less I buy the "twist," the less the twist satisfies the arc of the story and the more I wish that Moss could have better focused on one of his two stories. But I still wanted to use the frontier Western analogy, because I'm sure it's part of what Moss is going for and, even if it doesn't always work, it's still a big part of what keeps "The Overnighters" watchable, probably endlessly discussable and, in the end, tantalizing.
[More after the break...]