By Ena Alvarado
At once bold and unassuming, Jesse Moss’s documentary “The Overnighters,” now streaming on Netflix, delivers an unsettling exposé of the crippled American Dream. In the heart of the Great Plains, the rich petroleum deposits of Williston, North Dakota attract thousands of working-class men – month after month – from all conceivable corners of the country. Triggered by the state’s nearly decade-long and still ongoing oil boom, this influx of blue-collar laborers has disturbed the town for years. Immersing himself in the turmoil, Moss admirably captures a well-meaning pastor’s attempts to reconcile these homeless job seekers’ dreams of success with the established community’s concerns for safety and solidarity. Shortlisted for the Oscar’s Best Documentary Feature, the film is an exceptionally well-chronicled narrative of crushed fantasies, an account that is both heartbreaking and chilling.
In stark contrast to his neighbors, Pastor Jay Reinke understands the sacrifice made by the migrant men when they arrive on the doorsteps of his Concordia Lutheran Church. Escaping unemployment or hoping to find higher salaries, these individuals are also parting with family members and friends from back home; they are under incredibly intense emotional strain. In pursuit of a better future, they enter scarcely populated territories at the epicenter of a multi-billion dollar industry not known for its receptiveness to strangers. Given Williston’s inadequate infrastructure – the town is unable to support its ever expanding population – Pastor Jay opens an “overnighters” program, allowing the drifters to sleep on the floor of his church. Over time, these nightly lodgers begin to exasperate the congregation’s community. Untidy and scruffy, a few of these men bear dark secrets: some are low-level criminals, others are registered sex-offenders.
The beauty in “The Overnighters” lies in its ability to expound upon complex realities without ever needing to spoon-feed its message to the audience. Long, slow-paced shots of North Dakota’s ethereal prairies are juxtaposed with short, biting takes of men passed out in grimy trucks. A dilapidated RV, stationed in the church’s parking lot – which houses a jobless overnighter and recovering alcoholic – directly precedes an image of a three-floor mansion, only a couple of blocks down the road. “Little Miss Oil Country” parades around in a shiny car while frustrated overnighters make unsuccessful calls to prospective employers whose numbers they have written down on pieces of discarded cardboard.
The dichotomy between Williston’s financial promise and the lives of its struggling workers is alarming. Yet Moss is never explicit about his ideological stance regarding the overnighter situation. Within a politically-charged arena that is begging for judgment, he chooses to remain silent. His presence in the town is merely observational. Even though Moss spent nearly six months living in Pastor Jay’s church during the film’s production, his own voice is never heard. Several talking head interviews transpire, yet Moss’s questions are never included, concealing his identity. His absence establishes a sense of objectivity in the film’s depiction of a flawed pursuit of American ideals, as viewers cannot attribute the events taking place to any single idiosyncratic frame of thought. In this regard, “The Overnighters” lends an otherwise invisible crowd of powerless individuals a fair share at being heard.
As an equitable confidant, Moss offers an alluring mixture of security and protection that encourages the men to be vulnerable and exposed in his vicinity. Even Pastor Jay utilizes the film project as a platform to expose his personal set of sins – notably during the feature’s final minutes – and to symbolically confirm his actual likeness to the visitors. Through visual juxtapositions of need and privilege, Moss creates a stunningly poignant portrait of a spurious system that is consistently failing its humble pursuers. Even so, who is to blame for the problems afflicting Williston? The community or Pastor Jay? The oil business or the weakened economy? The overnighters? Deftly and discretely, Moss leaves the judgment up to his viewers.
Contact Ena Alvarado at enaalva ‘at’ stanford.edu