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Review: 'The Overnighters' is a frontier tale for 2014
Jesse Moss' Sundance doc received some of the Fest's best reviews
[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...]
In the past 10 years, the population of Williston, North Dakota has nearly tripled.
Fracking brought oil and oil brought money and the prospect of money brought in refuges from around the country, down-on-the-luck dreamers pouring out of every recession-crippled corner of the country, leaving families to wait while they ventured to a place of almost literal last resort in search of reportedly plentiful jobs.
While the economy of Williston requires these men -- there are almost no women as part of this migration, which I might have liked to see explored a bit more in what would, I guess, be an entirely different film -- the town of Williston isn't prepared for them in any way. There are insufficient apartment. There are insufficient houses. There are insufficient hotels and insufficient shelters. There's nowhere to put these people.
Enter Pastor Jay Reinke, who has opened the doors of the Concordia Lutheran Church to the settlers, allowing them to sleep in empty rooms, fill the hallways, squat in the pews and even occupy the parking lot with their cars and RVs. He tries to maintain the church-y stability by imposing rules that range from courteous -- No swearing -- to cosmetic -- no spilling coffee on the carpet. The Church doesn't charge, but Pastor Reinke encourages donations, not that anybody featured in "The Overnighters" is in any position to make donations.
The Overnighters phenomenon is fascinating and Moss had to be a part of it as well, since a town that doesn't have beds for the backbone of its workforce also doesn't have beds for visiting documentary filmmakers. By living where the men lived, Moss is able to offer quick portraits of a few of the new workers.
Initially, some of the portraits are healthy and optimistic. Keegan, from Wisconsin, Skypes regularly with his cute child and initially is successful enough to not only get a job, but earn a quick promotion.
And some of the portraits are sad and worrisome. Michael, a trained electrician, comes to town expecting easy work but struggles. His version of early success includes a house that's no larger than a garden shed.
Some of the portraits are just downright scary. The Church's parking lot resembles a grand tailgate party and some of the guests have decidedly anti-social behaviors like fishing for birds, driven jointly by boredom and sadism.
And then there are the portraits of ambiguity. There's Paul, an outsider from New York City who declares "I think I'm beyond redemption," but initially seems out of place due to his urbanity. There's a worrisome man who predicts the coming of the Rapture. And more.
As I said in my intro, I think there's a great movie that could have been made just about the overnighters themselves. A lot of those stories end up either unresolved or get abruptly truncated when juicier narratives grab the attention. There's a full human experience impacting these desperate fish-out-of-water that is only slightly touched on. Or maybe I'm just saying that I wanted to know more about Williston and all of its new arrivals and if that's what I'm saying, that's not Moss' fault, since the movie is called "The Overnighters" and his interest is very obviously focused around the Church.
I can't blame Moss for that focus. Pastor Jay is a ridiculously compelling character, a man with an almost pathological need to share his compassion. He knows that his attempts to welcome all of the strangers into his orbit is alienating his family, but also his congregation and his entire community. He recognizes this, but he's also incapable of understanding those alternative perspectives. He knows the board of the church is angry, but he figures that if he ignores their recommendations and fills the church with criminals who create distractions during services that the fault is with his flock for not joining him in welcoming the stranger. He knows that the local newspaper might have an interest in the number of registered sex offenders he's harboring, at least one literally in his house, but he figures that because he's willing to give second chances, the local journalists will be willing to ignore their responsibilities. There's indisputable kindness in everything Pastor Jay is doing, but Moss hints that there's a social experiment run amuck aspect to the overnight program and that Pastor Jay is snowblind to anything unsavory.
What drives Pastor Jay? What compells his wife and kids to follow him? For nearly 90 minutes, Moss dodges any answers, or lets viewers determine for themselves where the line has to be drawn between serving one's community and serving all of humanity. I think it's a provocative question. But Pastor Jay has a secret and it's a secret that, for me, somewhat muddles the message of the rest of the movie. The way I see it, there are two interpretations of how the secret fits into "The Overnighters": Either it's meant as an explanation for what makes Pastor Jay tick, in which case I'm kinda uncomfortable with the whole thing. Or it's just meant as a further detail in the movie's theme about people attempting to put on new faces, attempting to live as the facade of themselves rather than as their original selves. If it's just that, then I needed another 20 minutes to "Overnighters," finessing the secret into the overall story such that it feels like a piece of the arc, rather than punctuation at the end. I don't think Moss wanted or needed the secret to be the punctuation to "The Overnighters," but there it is and it bothers me there.
But don't get me wrong, I know why people are enjoying "The Overnighters."
The frontier narrative is practically primal. We all feel stuck, either in our professional and economic circumstances or in the identities that we've carved for ourselves in our lives. The idea of going someplace where nobody knows us, where we can start again, where the minimum wage is double what we might be looking at now? That's enticing. And the idea of a Pastor Jay is enticing as well, a benign figure who believes in the best part of you, who's willing to tear established relationships asunder for a stranger.
And "The Overnighters" is, until it falls on its face narratively, a really well-made documentary. I'm a strong advocate in favor of docs where the director also works as cinematographer. For anything immersive, the smaller the crew the better the results, which goes double when your eye is as good as Moss'. The depiction of Williston as half ghost-town, half boom-town is very evocatively realized and the situation of these broken men within a broken landscape just adds to the Western genre feel.
Ultimately, you're either going to feel like "The Overnighters" sticks the landing, a sentiment that would lead to a US Doc Jury Prize tonight, or you feel like the story falls disappointingly flat in the end. I'm not sure if I talked to anybody else who felt that way. Oh well. "The Overnighters" is still a good movie, it just felt like it was on the road to greatness.
Other Sundance reviews: