The Overnighters Jesse Moss
Published Nov 06, 2014Jesse Moss' The Overnighters is one of the best films of the year and an instant masterpiece of the documentary form. The film is a rich and challenging work that positions itself within the long tradition of "Great American Novel" narratives about the physical and emotional toll of small-town labour, while subverting those contexts for a modern audience. It's a popular critical manoeuvre that best manifests itself in works like Jonathan Franzen's best-selling book Freedom, but at its worst produces eye-rollingly preachy and ultimately empty material like last year's August: Osage County.
The Overnighters has drawn thematic comparisons to Steinbeck and Hemingway, although that's only half the story. The film manages to feel both timeless and essential to conversations about the conflicts we face today: the economic recession, environmental crises from fracking and the hotly contested role religion plays in community.
Moss' masterstroke here is rendering these complex conflicts in a personal and subtle fashion through his subjects and the challenges they face. These subjects never feel like mouthpieces for larger issues thanks to Moss' non-intrusive style, with Moss more or less functioning as a one-person crew during the shoot. Adding to this is the film's mostly vérité style, without interviews and only the occasional emotional music cue.
As the film begins, the town of Williston, North Dakota is in crisis, as thousands of new residents arrive thanks to the fracking business, setting up shop and destroying a good chunk of the land in the process. Desperate people from struggling backgrounds arrive from all over the country to make a new start in a supposedly prosperous business, many of whom have criminal convictions and history with drug abuse and are unprepared for the close-knit, conservative town politics. The town is unprepared for the massive influx of newcomers, lacking the infrastructure to house them and unhappy with the sudden change to their social environment.
At the centre of everything is Pastor Jay Reinke, one of the most compelling documentary subjects in recent memory. Not since Anwar Congo in Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing has the narrative strength of a documentary rested so strongly on the shoulders of one subject, someone compelling enough to guide the audience through an ever-shifting structure in a masterful way, negotiating identity politics of place and their internal struggle in such a hypnotic way. Reinke offers up his church space for the workers to sleep overnight, anywhere from hallways to the parking lot to the pews, without asking for anything in return except respect for the church space and to refrain from cursing.
That sense of basic human empathy from Reinke begins to get complicated rather quickly, as the people staying in the church struggle with their past lives while trying to re-establish themselves. Reinventing the self in relation to labour becomes the central tension of the film, as all characters fall under the town's unsympathetic lens. Moss succeeds brilliantly in his depiction of the fringe societies that form as a result of economic disparity, capturing the powerful and scary reality of the workers as they negotiate their position in Reinke's new social order.
Reinke himself is the biggest source of ambiguity in the film, even in the face of all the uncertain futures of Moss' other subjects. How can this man be so kind and forgiving? Where does this endless source of empathy come from? Certainly we are meant to question his motives when he allows a convicted sex offender to stay in his house, hiding him from the media eye to let the Overnighters program continue without scrutiny. Moss is careful to depict Reinke as a deeply conflicted subject, alienated from his family and unsure of the right decisions to make, yet hopelessly dedicated to helping the new workers because of his commitment to religious values.
Reinke's motives eventually become clearer as the film concludes, but the film resists easy readings of motive for all its subjects. Moss concludes the film in an upsetting way that feels both unsatisfying and completely in line with what has thematically come before. If the "Great American Novel" narrative is about reinvention of the self in relation to labour, then this conclusion repositions the film's identity in a similar way, recontextualizing what has come before through an active process that feels thematically appropriate with what we've come to know. The Overnighters is the Great American Novel of the documentary medium.
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