‘The Overnighters’ Blu-ray Review
John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, told of the Joad family, migrant farmers who leave Oklahoma during the Great Depression. Their intent is to find a much better life in California. What they end up finding is an overabundance of tenant farmers all wanting the same thing—to be able to work, make good money, and to provide for their families. Jesse Moss’s documentary, The Overnighters, draws immediate comparisons to Steinbeck’s novel of the disillusion of the American dream.
THE MOVIE ITSELF
The Overnighters focuses on the community of Williston, North Dakota, a small community of approximately 18,000 that sits in the middle of the oil-rich portion of the state. This draws workers from throughout the country to this small town with dreams of making riches in the oilfields. Unfortunately, the job opportunities are slim, and affordable housing is even slimmer. These workers basically live and sleep in their vehicles. That is until a local pastor steps in to help.
Pastor Jay Reinke of the Concordia Lutheran Church comes up with a plan to help these workers by allowing the church to become a dorm for the men and women and their vehicles to be parked in the church parking lot. Reinke even allows a couple of the men to sleep in his own home, where Reinke lives with his wife and three children. What begins as Reinke’s belief of loving thy neighbor turns into a conflict of principles between the pastor and the townspeople of Williston, including his own congregation. As more and more drifters come to town to find work, the church and the surrounding area are transformed into a modern day Hooverville.
The pastor and the program ultimately come under fire when a local woman is found dead and the two men suspected of the crime, participants of Reinke’s Overnighters program, are registered sex offenders. An investigation by the local newspaper shows a very significant rise in the number of registered sex offenders to the area, many using the church’s address as their place of residence. This pushes Pastor Reinke to ultimately decide if what he has done in the name of God has helped or hurt his community.
The Overnighters is powerful storytelling from beginning to end. Moss delivers a film that initially starts off with so much hope, seeing these workers coming to the area in search of work. But, like Steinbeck’s novel, the over-abundance of workers thins out the jobs and causes a backlash with the community. The director allows the viewer to meet some of these workers, and these men are just like you and me, hoping to live the American dream—to be able to make money and provide for their families. The majority of these workers have been hit hard by recent economic issues, and their attempts to pull themselves up are heartbreakingly documented here.
The film’s primary protagonist is Pastor Reinke. He is a good, if naïve, person who ultimately suffers for doing what he believes in his heart to be the right thing for these workers. He has, throughout the film, the support of his family, even when one of the men who slept at his home is discovered on the list of sex offenders published by the newspaper. However, when he goes out among the neighbors of the church to talk to the people, he is cast away. Reinke is an idealist who is prepared to support these men, even with overwhelming resistance from those around him. He is willing to have a rifle pointed at his face, and five minutes later, step out of his truck and gleefully wave at a passing Amtrak train.
Moss tells his story at a leisurely pace, allowing the audience to soak in what is before them. At times, it’s tough to watch. A scene where a local reporter badgers Reinke as he is walking down the street, in regards to the revelation of the sex offenders charge, documents the art of restraint on Reinke’s part. Another poignant moment occurs when Reinke confronts one of the workers in a restaurant. But, without a doubt, nothing will prepare the viewer for the bomb that is dropped in the film’s last 15 minutes. It comes out of nowhere, and it make you re-evaluate everything that you’ve seen up to that point. It is literally jaw-dropping.
In the Bible, Mark 12:31 says, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” At one point in the film, Pastor Reinke tells one of the workers, “Jesus never had these neighbors.” The Overnighters is a thought-provoking film that will linger long after seeing it.
The Overnighters comes to Blu-ray with a 100p, MPEG-4 AVC transfer, and an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The film’s transfer looks quite good, with excellent clarity and imagery. The picture is bright, but not oversaturated. The colors appear natural, with tans and yellows like a North Dakota field. Blacks are light in hue, and skin tones are very natural. Details, such a razor stubble, clothing texture, and fields waving in the wind are sharp. There doesn’t appear to be any distortion or blemishes to the picture at all.
The film’s 5.1 Dolby Digital audio transfer suffers the same fate as most documentaries on home video: it is essentially a front channel presentation. That’s not saying what you get isn’t good. The reproduction of dialogue is extremely clear and precise. The front speakers handle most of the music and it is terrific, accentuating the acoustic guitar of musician T. Griffin. The back surrounds poke their heads in rarely, mostly by adding depth to the music score.
The extra features found on The Overnighters are not overly extensive, but they give insight to Jay Reinke and those affected by the Overnighters program. An audio commentary with Reinke and director Jesse Moss provides more depth to what is onscreen, some of which is difficult to watch. Also included is a video interview between Reinke and Moss that occurred 6 months after the film was completed. Great stuff here.
- Audio Commentary with director Jesse Moss and Jay Reineke
- Follow-up Interview with Jay Reineke
- Deleted and Extended Scenes
- Theatrical Trailers
Having had the opportunity to view this film twice, once at the Tallgrass Film Festival and now on home video, my impressions are still the same—The Overnighters is a powerful piece of work that makes you think about society as a whole. Jesse Moss delivers a documentary that is both enlightening and heartbreaking at the same time. It tells of Jay Reinke, a good man attempting to do good work for people in need. But his attempt at goodness is disrupted, not only by those in his community, but by those he is trying to help. At times, this is a painfully difficult film to watch, mainly due to the bleakness of many of the situations. This is one of those films that is very hard to shake off after you’ve seen it.