Fracking has come to North Dakota in recent years, and with it came a job boom that has given the state the lowest unemployment rate in the country. Many filmmakers have focused on fracking’s environmental impact, most notably Josh Fox in his Gasland films. The first of those was nominated for an Oscar and memorably showed people lighting their tap water on fire, allegedly due to chemical effects of the process. But The Overnighters may be the most explosive fracking documentary yet. It raises troubling questions not about how we are going to treat our landscape, but how we are willing to treat our neighbors, or even ourselves.
This film succeeds in two fundamental ways. By examining the overnighters program, where Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, North Dakota gave more than a thousand job seekers a place to sleep, it brings attention to a neglected social issue. Even more compelling is the portrait of Pastor Jay Reinke. He was the engine behind the program, and by following him for a year and a half, director Jesse Moss caught some sublime moments of spontaneous humanity, the kind that only the documentary form can offer.
First we meet the men, sleeping on cots, on the floor, or in their cars in the church parking lot. They have the same purpose but vastly different backgrounds. Some find high-paying work easily. Others linger, due to their age, their crime record, or substance abuse. This lingering starts to trouble the Concordia congregation. The program mushrooms beyond their expectations. The town’s crime rate rises, as do the levels of fear toward the outsiders. Pastor Reinke finds himself a voice in the wilderness, trying to keep his flock true to its charitable, Christian intentions. “To be human is to serve,” he says, as doors slam in his face.
It is a rare man who tries to actually walk the radical walk put forth in the Gospels. At one point, he talks with an Overnighter who is angry at the lack of acceptance in the community and wants to leave. When Reinke says to him, “I want to love you,” there is something deeply believable, and at the same time unbelievable, going on. The same is true when Reinke listens to a man talk about his drug and crime-riddled past, then assures him: “You and I are a lot more alike than we are different.”
Because such men are rare, they often find adversity. Reinke tries to alleviate tension by setting up a community mixer, asking locals to meet the overnighters with a Rodney King naiveté: “Can’t we all get along?” It doesn’t work. He tries everything else he can think of, at one point asking an unemployed man to cut his long hair for appearance’s sake. “Did Jesus have short hair?” the man asks. Reinke retorts, “Jesus didn’t have our neighbors.”
Many have identified the obvious parallels here to The Grapes of Wrath, but the similarity runs deeper. John Steinbeck was not merely reporting the realities of the Depression. He was trying to drag his fellow man along the road to brotherhood. “What is community in this place?” Reinke asks when Williston adopts an ordinance against the outsiders. Yet even his mercy is pushed to the breaking point by deception and betrayal, and some of the program’s early success stories turn to sorrow.
The pastor’s family life begins to show signs of strain when Reinke brings a sex offender to live in the basement. But the worst pressure is self-inflicted. Those who strive to live by such high standards often punish themselves when they inevitably fall short. Reinke falls short in more ways than one, and he allows the camera to catch him at the most heartbreaking moment of his imperfection. The film’s final moments add an unexpected meaning to the title: anyone’s life can fall apart overnight.