IMDB: Broken, desperate men chase their dreams and run from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields. A local Pastor risks everything to help them.
ROTTEN TOMATOES: Hard-hitting, absorbing, and painfully relevant, The Overnighters offers an urgent and compassionate picture of life in 21st century America.
GOOGLE: A pastor sparks a controversy in his North Dakota town by opening his church doors to homeless workers who are seeking jobs at nearby oil fields.
INDIEWIRE: One of the most remarkable examples of layered non-fiction storytelling to come along in some time.
Okay. That’s the official position, the liberal gloss on small towns with conservative churches caught in a culture vice created by exploitative power-hungry corporations. That’s true, but there’s more to it.
One of the early scenes is the jolly pastor singing hymns as he rousts men for the day. He’s very much in the mode of good old Brother Van, the Methodist bachelor preacher who supplied song and good cheer across early Montana. The sleeping men are indoor street people in bedrolls along the halls and rooms of the religious education wing of a Lutheran church, clearly built back in the day when big two-parent families wanted to provide their children with a reliable map of how to live with God. The pastor is intense and intimate, putting his arms around the men, but the filmmaker is also allowed a lot of intimacy -- his head is in the huddle, too.
The Bakken boom has reverberated even here in Valier. An earlier version of social shift that displaced small family farms with rural industrial agriculture (vast small-grain fields farmed by huge machines). Now this shift is to the oil patch and frakking, a destructive bonanza made necessary by the fuel and fertilizer managed by those huge diesel tractors. (Plus, of course, transportation and energy that supports the Internet and other city doin’s.) This is “flyover country”. Sometimes you can see the little smudge of dumped surplus fuel when the big planes prepare the long descent down to Minneapolis.
Often one can tell more from the negative space around a problem than the obvious problem itself. What we here call “the High-line” because that was the name of the Great Northern tracks just south of the Canadian border, pushed that earlier boom/bust a century ago. The railroad promoted ag-based homesteading so they would have traffic, but the combination of drought and bank collapse (these booms always are capital-based both on ascendancy and on decline) ended in foreclosures and dispersal, the same trajectory as these contemporary men looking for a way to make a new grubstake. But they didn’t come to make homes.
Locals at first were thrilled. These things are always promoted as a surefire way to “grow” and therefore get the old days back. Plus needed tax money. In Great Falls there has been a boom in telephone answering services: they contract to answer questions as “support” for appliances, insurance, and other businesses that are not there. No one can see them, so they tend to be people who can’t easily get other jobs, stigmatized by their appearance but not handicapped by being dumb. The company always comes in asking for grants from the city and pledging to stay and become part of the community. After a few years of sweet deals, they pull out. The building is back to being semi-abandoned and a few hundred people are looking for job.
Working in the Bakken boom is tough. It’s hard repetitious labor with a certain amount of risk and a climate like Antarctica, which makes it barely possible to live in a car or “rough.” Man-camps go up, trucked-in dorms, usually owned by the corporations. There are always a few men who are over-optimistic, grifters, alcoholic, and other misfits. The ones who haven’t gotten into the job system yet -- or who are automatically filtered out -- can be dangerously antisocial. One category that desperately needs to be anonymous is the men labeled sex-offenders and forbidden to live here, there, or anywhere. There are a LOT of them and they are supposed to be monitored as criminals. The nature of their sex offenses ranges over a broad spectrum, from murderers to teen lovers.
Gradually, we realize that this church is a shell. It’s Lutheran, which means that the denomination is helping, probably mostly with the pastor’s salary. He has a wife, hard-working and devoted, and three kids who seem pretty successful. We never see the pastor preach. The building, probably all paid off in the past, is clean, well-built, with a big parking lot, now filled with men living in cars and campers. The neighbors want a clean, safe, respectable location, like the old days. The board is middle-class businessmen, aging, a little baffled but used to being in charge and preserving appearances while dealing quietly with bad things. This is not the sort of church in the sort of place that a successful Man of God is looking for if he’s thinking about anything but charity.
Something is going on.
Now the spoiler: the pastor turns out to be gay, but not in a healthy way. His family doesn’t know. The gay grifters have figured it out and take advantage. He is terrified of publicity. With good reason, because the small town resisters know that if they pull in some hip big city news hounds, the reporters are capable of smashing this charity project that has turned their big otherwise empty buildings into a Salvation Army dormitory. (On the other hand, they DO fill the pews on Sunday. But would you want to sit with them?) SEX, SEX, SEX! What sexual revolution? So Jesse Moss comes in and puts a new liberal spin on the story, finally getting down to the level of confession.
There’s a pile-on of the more shifty men, happy to accuse the pastor’s character, creating enough squid ink to make their escape. Looking back, one wonders which ones were having sex with the pastor. The film shifts to the land, not the drilling but the fields where family homes stand ruined and deserted. This had been their forever place. They are probably swelling the cities and suburbs to the south or west. The pastor tells his wife ON-CAMERA in public and she is devastated. Then he wanders off alone in his car, now an over-nighter himself.
The wife and kids will be okay as soon as they have a little time and counseling. They are hard-working and attractive. The house belongs to the church so what happens with it depends on whether a new pastor comes who needs to live there. I think the community will rally to the family, but that they will move on. The kids are nearly college age and the wife may want a re-tread credential for a career. This is the way life happens in the US today.
But let’s be real. The Metropolitan Community Church (website: http://mccchurch.org) welcomes gays and other alternative “lifestyles.” All their pastors that I know of are gay men, though there are women and cis men in the congregations. I’ve done pulpit supply once, because Unitarian Universalists also try to be open. (UU's are a little more upscale and straight.) I was instructed that at some point I was to receive the men in couples, to put my arms around them and assure them that they are fine, conscientious people who love each other. I did that. It was exactly what Rienke, the pastor in the movie was doing. These were young, idealistic, devoted men and I saw no reason not to support that. Some of them wept.
How come Rienke or at least the filmmakers, who were presumably broadly aware, didn’t note this alternative he had? It’s as though he had been earning redemption with martyrdom so long that he didn’t know how to be ordinary, didn’t WANT to be ordinary, somehow NEEDED a secret life. I can’t blame him. When I was in the ministry, I needed a secret life, too, but it was not sex-based, more book-based and, well, cloistered. Was this pastor’s advisors -- come on, every pastor in a mainstream denomination has a cloud of supervisors, guides, colleagues, therapists -- so out-of-it that they didn’t know about the Metropolitan Community Church or was the pastor himself defining gay as so scurrilous that he wouldn’t accept his own desires and make them legitimate? Why couldn’t he join with the people trying to reform the Lutherans to recognize gay pastors?
In the end any population-based institution has to deal with numbers, demographics, and how many bottoms are sitting on their checkbooks in those pews. But when the people are gone, there is no graceful strategy for the use of a building that has the luxury of standing empty for 6 days out of 7. Probably the best bet would be a retirement home for aging people who need a little support. Emotion has to respond to economics. In fact, it is world economics of the price of oil that has since changed the whole dynamic of the boom. Valier was a bit relieved, to be honest.
But what about a centuries-old, education-based (Lutheran seminaries have VERY high standards), once-mainstream denomination, sort of semi-Catholic religious institution. What obligation to do they have to drifters and grifters? What do they owe to the respectable, worried, struggling “Saving Remnant”? And why didn’t they give that pastor a rap upside the head? I know he must have done a Clinical Pastoral Education internship, probably in a hospital, where such deep dilemmas are supposed to be turned out and surrendered to God.
It must work for somebody somewhere or why do conscientious people keep counting on it? There are perfectly practical things to do when the will to do it is there. To me the bottom line corruption is that the city folks are willing to destroy the prairie in order to live on the profits: cheap oil and cheap bread. They worship money, not God and not the planet. Lately even city people have been wondering if they aren’t just an answering service for small appliances and travel agents.
I liked the article about the origin of the film at http://www.buzzfeed.com/kateaurthur/10-things-to-know-about-the-overnighters#.awkJ9gYX