Pen in hand and prepared for a pastoral story set in the oil fields of North Dakota, I found myself slightly confused on night one of the Fargo Film Festival. The first shot! Whoa, the first shot! After jotting down a note about “quick editing,” I realized that I was critiquing the Fargo Film Festival opening montage. Seconds later, however, Jesse Moss’ acclaimed documentary The Overnighters began with the original image — a North Dakota Image — that piqued my interest.
As a North Dakota resident, I know plenty about the landscapes of Fargo-Moorhead but little about life in Williston. In fact, images of Jett Rink (“I’m rich, Bick!”) and Phil Jackson enter my head when I think about the city near the Canadian border. With that being said, I went into The Overnighters cold, so to speak, just as Americans from all walks of life arrive in Williston for work. Of course, residents of the upper Midwest realize there’s always a time when the season’s change and the weather warms up.
Before the bubbly personality of Pastor Jay Reinke consumes almost every scene of The Overnighters, director Moss opens with a shot of the man in deep thought. “The private person becomes something else,” says Mr. Reinke, and a story of genuine (and contrived love) begins.
With an overtly affectionate character like the Pastor, one can’t blame outsiders for tearing up when offered a place to sleep. Reinke arms himself with a sense of humor outside his domain (“Jesus doesn’t have our neighbors”) and maintains a light vibe within the comforting walls of his guest house — especially in the bathroom (“if you can’t hit, sit it”). His motivation never appears fraudulent, however Moss’ camera often catches a troubling side of Pastor Reinke. Then again, “North Dakota Nice” can’t be maintained 24-7 when you’re risking everything to help registered sex offenders and felons. Even so, a handful of the “Overnighters” become suspicious of Reinke for unknown reasons.
The Overnighters isn’t a film specifically about about the trials and tribulations of Pastor Jay Reinke; it’s about Americans trying to get by in the unlikeliest of places. Moss highlights the personal struggles of many who find themselves re-awakened in northwestern North Dakota, and others who simply fade in and fade out. Incidentally, Reinke’s loyal wife makes only a few brief appearances on camera, however she mirrors the hopes of the “Overnighters.” Mrs. Reinke works. She believes. She endures.
Both Jesse Moss and Jay Reinke were in attendance at last night’s screening of The Overnighters, and they offered a collection of poignant anecdotes about the making of the documentary. When the curtain closed, however, a few questions remained unanswered. Nevertheless, The Overnighters encapsulates more than one man’s journey. As Moss noted after the screening, one doesn’t have to live in North Dakota to find meaning in the words “I’m an overnighter.”