It is always interesting to see how documentary filmmakers happen upon their true subject. When Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky began Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, they intended a straight forward “making of” documentary and ended up with a strange, unintentionally hilarious examination of rock stars and their need for therapy. When Wim Wenders began Pina, he had no way of knowing that choreographer Pina Bausch would pass away during the production, and so he was left with an elegy to her. Jesse Moss is the latest documentary filmmaker who starts filming one story, only to discover one altogether. The Overnighters is compelling because no one seems to know just how the story will unfold.
Williston, North Dakota was a sleepy town, at least until the proliferation of fracking created a minor oil boom. Companies were in demand of oil workers, and in a post-recession America where parts of the country still have high unemployment rates, an able-bodied man could head to North Dakota and reasonably expect a good living. These desperate men are Moss’ initial subject: the allure of an oil job is compelling because in some cases, companies do not ask about an arrest record. The problem, however, is that the city is overrun with these men and there is not enough housing for them (you would think that oil companies would provide workers with room and board, then deduct that cost from their salary, but Moss does not provide that detail). Instead, his entry point is a Lutheran pastor, one who provides accommodations for “overnighters” who are not yet on their feet.
The pastor’s named is Jay, and at first he seems like a man filled with overwhelming decency. He enjoys working with these men, and is happy to provide a service that the city cannot. Parts of The Overnighters are cautiously idyllic, full of wary optimism and character-driven episodes about low-income folks who struggle to preserve their dignity, and then Moss’ direction flips the tone so that decency veers toward something more unwholesome. There is a scene where Jay leads a round of The Hokey Pokey, and it involves too many adults so all the smiles are plastered-on. Midway through the documentary, there is a guy from New York who sees through Jay, and his disturbing accusation casts a dark shadow over all that follows.
Throughout The Overnighters, Jay has a fight with City Hall over the amount of people he can have stay at his church. This feels like a micro-scale David Vs. Goliath tale, except Moss eventually turns the whole narrative on his head. By the end of the film, we start to see that the city has a point and that Jay overextends himself. Moss is careful not to take sides, except that his film is a stark example of why government oversight is sometimes necessary. Still, the more compelling arcs involve specific individuals. Moss must be acutely aware that everyone is on their best behavior when his camera is rolling, yet between the scenes there is the suggestion that these people are, well, just people, and that they do not fall into the redemptive narrative Jay creates for them. By the time Moss and Jay get around to some final twists, they’re not exactly surprising because The Overnighters so successfully dismantled this vestige of the American Dream.
In terms of form, The Overnighters is remarkably subversive. Moss uses cinema-verite style, capturing moments in supposed real time, except he controls the narrative tightly (a simple Google search reveals how Moss lied throughout by simple omission). His soundtrack is minimalist guitar and string instruments, which are meant to highlight the melancholy of the situation, then they become a macabre joke after none of the people in this film fit into the Hallmark Card mold of the rugged individualist. All throughout is Jay, who might either be a Machiavellian schemer or a paragon of Love Thy Neighbor (he’s probably a mix of both, with an emphasis on the latter). The Overnighters dismantles American mythos, whether it’s the wisdom of small town values, pluralism, the selfless leadership of the church, or Horatio Alger narrative of economic prosperity. What makes it a good film, one that’s ultimately a little hopeful, is how Moss’ camera finds sympathy for these people because of their imperfections, not in spite of them.