Quick, name the most expensive housing market in America. If you said New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, you couldn’t be farther from the truth — literally. Each is over 1,500 miles away from Williston, North Dakota, a monochrome town you can drive end-to-end in 15 minutes. In four years, the population of Williston has doubled as newcomers gold-rush to work the newly discovered Bakken Shale formation, the largest oil find in U.S. history. But these men need a lot of black gold to afford a place to sleep. The average cost of a 700-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Williston is $2,394 a month — almost $1,000 more than the same space in Manhattan.
Jesse Moss’s documentary The Overnighters is a heart-wrencher about the clash between economics and ethics. Its story sounds like the sort of dry news blurb you’d skim over in the Sunday paper but unfolds into an epic tragedy. To the locals, Williston is under attack from the hordes who have flooded their once-quiet town. (“These people come and then they rape, pillage, and burn, and then they leave,” spits one woman.) To the invaders, Williston is the end of the line, the last domino to tip over in the chain of disasters that began when the recession wreaked blue-collar havoc, cost folks their homes, and forced these men to fend for their families by striking out for North Dakota alone.
We see the transplants decamp for Williston in video diaries where they cross their fingers about the jobs they hope they’ll find. And we see them when they arrive: homeless, hated by the community, and clustered in the corners of Williston’s Concordia Lutheran Church. Pastor Jay Reinke, a soft-voiced father of four who favors lavender button-up shirts, has given his blessing to sleep anywhere they fit: in storage rooms, along the hallways, even between pews.
Reinke’s got rules. There’s no swearing, no drinking, no spilling coffee, no long hair. “Did Jesus have short hair?” one metalhead counters. Sighs the pastor, “Jesus didn’t have our neighbors.” But more importantly, Reinke’s got an unshakeable belief that Williston’s crisis could be cured if the townspeople practiced what Jesus preached and opened their hearts (and homes) to strangers. Love thy neighbors, he pleads, even if they’re squatting in a van.
Can this gentle, optimistic man — the living embodiment of Ned Flanders — change the minds of the town he’s served for 20 years? With the local Williston Herald printing rabble-rousing stories about the new thugs in town, he doesn’t seem to have a prayer. As the city considers an RV ban, and then debates closing Reinke’s dormitory altogether, the pastor pilgrimages door to door begging locals to give the outsiders a chance, and trying his best to maintain his belief that there are good people in his town. After a door gets slammed in his face, he snaps, “Not to judge people by appearances, but a man with no teeth, living with his daughter, calling other people who have needs ‘trash.’ ” But you sense if Moss kept the cameras rolling, Reinke would have corrected himself and apologized.
The Overnighters could have been a simplistic parable about redemption, and for the first 30 minutes it seems to play like one. The newcomers say all the right, rote things: that Reinke’s faith in them has given them faith in themselves, that they’re more than their struggles and mistakes. Former drug addict Alan spent 16 years in prison and is now Reinke’s right-hand man. A flinchy screw-up named Paul admits that no one has ever cared about him, and Reinke immediately replies, “I want to love you — I love you.”
But hope is fragile. Once Moss completes the social-issues survey and zeroes in on Reinke, the doc goes from good to great. Reinke loves everyone. He has to. Unlike the blowhards who’ve given religion a bad reputation, Reinke is so self-effacing you want to step into the screen and give him a hug. In his own editorials for the Herald, with titles like “Newcomers Should Be Welcomed Because They Are a Gift From God” and “People, We Can Do This,” he confesses to his own fatigue every time a new man arrives at his church, and then explains — seemingly almost to himself — how to spin exhaustion into empathy.
His forgiveness has no limit. But the town’s does. When a local reporter — a transplant himself, in Williston for only two weeks — accuses him of harboring a sex offender on church property, Reinke moves the man, a truck driver named Keith, into his own house. When Keith then tests Reinke’s trust, we watch this good man’s sandcastle dreams start to crumble. The film then urges us to look to the rest of the men, who need Reinke’s faith to survive, and without it, risk being broken in ways they weren’t broken before.
Is Williston’s own faith so broken that one sinner outweighs a living saint? It’s a question Reinke is left wrestling with himself. He still writes editorials for the Williston Herald. The title of a recent piece: “Graduates, Don’t Try to Change the World.”
Directed by Jesse Moss.