More American nightmare than American Dream, Jesse Moss’ Sundance award-winning documentary The Overnighters (2013) looks at the crisis at the centre of the economic collapse within the post-Empire confines of contemporary America. Coming at this point through the prism of Lutheran Pastor Jay Reinke, Moss is free to portray many positives within a tirade of negatives. Williston, North Dakota is America’s 21st century equivalent of gold rush-era San Francisco. The average rent in the town has spiralled to post-New York and Los Angeles levels, but work in the fracking industry is apparently easy to find and six-figure salaries are the norm amongst employees.
Finding somewhere to live is another matter and there are an estimated 30,000 residents living in trailer parks, temporary housing, or sleeping in their cars. Tens of thousands of unemployed men show up in the hope of honest work and a generous salary when hydraulic fracturing unlocks a vast oil field in the nearby Brakken shale. However, upon their arrival the itinerant hopeful approach the dawning reality of slim work prospects and a small town lacking the infrastructure to support such an influx of mass troubled incomers – calling to mind John Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath. Faced with this micro-humanitarian disaster, Pastor Jay Reinke channels the spirit of Christianity and opens his church to all-comers, turning this house of prayer into a dorm and counselling centre.
So starts the ‘Overnighters’ project as they come one and all to stay for a week or a month. They sleep on the floor, in the pews and in their cars in the church parking lot. The ‘Overnighters’ almost to a man are all male, but more importantly they are white working-class Americans who couldn’t earn a living wage back home. As this stream of resultant flotsam from American Capitalism continues to arrive in Williston, the inevitable negativity from citizens who are terrified of the unknown attack in whatever way possible: either through low rank tabloid journalism or by legal attempts to shut the project down. The success of The Overnighters comes from multiple directions. Firstly, it’s in the depiction of an America that is failing as an example of what happens when a safety net is taken away and people are left to fend for themselves. Secondly, it looks at the reality of small town life and, thirdly, the focus on a pastor doing his best in a bad situation.
At the beginning of the film, Reinke seems like a cliché – a small town do-gooder blinded by his faith and in turn ripe for exploitation from the people he is helping. That the film very slowly and skilfully starts singling out this man and showing a three-dimensional example of delusional compartmentalisation that will ultimately lead to his downfall makes an exacting re-enactment of biblical hubris. A films that sheds layers like a rotting onion, this is cinema that forces a narrative that is constant. There is no end and no beginning, just an opening of hope and hopelessness that appears as an example of how to live in the midst of many demons. This is laissez-faire capitalism in all its totality; an idea that feeds off the failure of a society to care and nurture. There are no answers here – only a viewpoint into the horrors of what is to become.