'The Overnighters': A Devastating Documentary With an Ending That Will Shock You


A scene from The Overnighters

When Jesse Moss set out to shoot a documentary about Williston, North Dakota, he was interested in documenting the modern-day gold rush created by the fracking industry. The resulting film, The Overnighters, is one of the year’s best documentaries and is expanding in select theaters throughout November. It’s also an entirely different movie than the one Moss expected to make. I had this picture in my mind of what a film about the oil boom should be: It should be roughnecks on a drilling rig with hard hats,” the director tells Yahoo Movies. “And I had to let go of that. Because I honestly didn’t expect to find my way to a church and make a film about a pastor.”

To describe The Overnighters as “a film about a pastor” is as reductive as saying it’s about fracking or American migrant workers or a small town in crisis — though all of these are true. In a larger sense, The Overnighters is about the moral challenges that ordinary people face during tough economic times. In Moss’s words, “We all confront that question: How do we give to someone who has less than we have, and what does that take away from and who does that take away from in our lives?”

The film’s conduit for this spiritual struggle is Jay Reinke, a Lutheran pastor who has opened his church and home to the desperate men who pass through Williston, looking for jobs in the oil fields. “North Dakota is a place of last resort; you don’t go there unless you really need to go find work. And within Williston, the church was the place of last resort,” Moss explains. Reinke believes that the only Christian option is to offer these strangers food, shelter, and resources. But his “overnighters” program is met with distrust from the congregation, who watch uneasily as their church becomes a messy, chaotic boarding house for itinerant men. As tensions between the community and the newcomers increase, the pastor himself becomes a lighting rod — and his continued devotion to these strangers, at the expense of his own professional and emotional stability, paves the way for the film’s most shocking revelation. (We won’t spoil it here.)


Pastor Jay Reinke in The Overnighters

“I knew that Jay was really acting on his faith, and yet I also felt like there was a mystery within him as a person, in his heart, that he wasn’t ready to reveal to me,” Moss reflects. “I really came to feel that Jay had something in his life that accounted for his superhuman compassion for these men and women who were broken, who were burdened, who felt shame and stigma like they didn’t belong in the community. When people ask me about the ending of the film, sometimes people need to ask me why it’s there. And I think it’s so profoundly related to what the work is about, what Jay did, and the fact that we are all broken, and like so many of the men who came to him — they had done bad things, but they had come to do good.”

The Overnighters raises a lot of big questions, and refuses to placate its audience with tidy resolutions. But the film remains a powerful document of one man’s struggle to make a difference, whatever the price. After the events of The Overnighters, says Moss, ” I think everybody in Williston wanted to just erase the memory of the overnighters and what it stood for. And Jay would say to me, ‘Jesse, was it a dream?’ And I’d say, ‘Jay, it wasn’t a dream. I filmed it. You did it.’”

Watch a trailer for the movie below:

Photo credits: AP Photo/Courtesy of Drafthouse Films