I went to the Saint Anthony Main theatre on Friday night for a showing of The Overnighters.
It’s a good movie. It’s worth seeing.
But it’s more complicated than that.
The Punched Social Ticket: In reporting on life and the people in the Square States (aka “Flyover Land”), our culture’s self-appointed elites have a fairly consistent three-part narrative:
- Prosperity in the square states is at least a bad thing: at worst, it’s an unmitigated tragedy.
- People in Flyover Land are conservative in all the wrong ways: Whether it be a staid, stolid “that’s not how we do it here” to a cripping setness in one’s ways to a harsh, unforgiving bigotry, the Square States are like Deliverance Lite in the eyes of our coastal cultural elites.
- Faith in general, but especially Christianity, is always a veneer over boundless depravity: Christians, in the narrative, are deluded and usually bigoted dullards at best; hypocritical unto evil at worst. The notion of redemption is always exposed as a toxic lie in the end.
Keep those narrative points in mind through this review.
We’ll come back to that.
Baggage: Before I get to reviewing anything, let me be up front; I have a chip on my shoulder.
I grew up in a place that barely qualified as a cultural punchline for most of its history; a place famous for durum wheat and George Armstrong Custer and scary fringe characters and Minuteman missiles and the nastiest blizzards in America, and not much else. A place that some don’t believe exists, that some have tried to abolish and cede back to nature (before all that oil), that still provokes a lot of ignorant babble from “cultural elites” and newbies alike.
And when I was getting established in the big city, almost thirty years ago, it wasn’t a long trip for a lot of people from “you’re from a punch line” to “you are a punch line”.
And pushing against that turned into a hot ball of rage that kept me warm on many a cold night in my twenties.
That, like the narrative, will return to this review.
Hopeless Opportunity: The film is set in Willison, North Dakota. It’s the epicenter of the oil boom. Ten years ago, Williston had maybe 8,000 residents; today, it’s probably pushing 30,000, and nobody’s sure about that.
The movie’s protagonist – and for the first 90 minutes or so, hero – is Pastor Jay Reinke, minister at Concordia Lutheran Church in Willison. We see at the beginning of the movie that Reinke is busy running an ad hoc program – the eponymous “Overnighters” - to provide shelter for people who are new to Williston and have noplace to stay.
It’s frequently a tough battle. While North Dakota’s job market is smoking hot, it’s also more expensive to rent an apartment in Williston than in New York or San Francisco. Property values and rents have risen to the point where some locals, especially people on fixed incomes, can’t afford to live there anymore.
And the job market’s not great for everyone; Reinke sadly informs an older black man who just got off the train that the oil fields are a young man’s trade, with brutal work and long hours and very difficult physical conditions. For others – truck drivers – background checks trip them up.
In fact, if you didn’t look carefully, you would miss the parts where the filmmakers acknowledge the fact that the oilfields, overall, have a crippling labor shortage and that the unemployment rate is half the national average, and that Williston is a place where people with high school diplomas and (as one new arrival, a black man with a Chicago accent, notes on a cell phone) people with multiple felonies can make six-figure salaries.
It’s an acknowledgement, of sorts – a drive-by, if you will. But beyond that?
The movie’s website says (emphasis added):
In the tiny town of Williston, North Dakota, tens of thousands of unemployed hopefuls show up with dreams of honest work and a big paycheck under the lure of the oil boom. However, busloads of newcomers chasing a broken American Dream step into the stark reality of slim work prospects and nowhere to sleep. The town lacks the infrastructure to house the overflow of migrants, even for those who do find gainful employment.
Grapes of what?
You’d think they were moving to Detroit or Camden.
To assert otherwise would be to break the narrative; there is no real prosperity. There’s just bitter, broken people serving the monstrous, otherworldly oil rigs that loom on every horizon.
The movie follows several of Reverend Reinke’s “overnighters” – men who had spent time camping out at Concordia; a young guy from Wisconsin who starts at the bottom and soon moves his way up to a supervising position and an RV; a black truck driver from parts unknown; a hopeless electrician from Georgia; a former meth addict from somewhere down South; an enigmatic and very intense New Yorker who leaves thematic elements dangling like ripped-out telephone wires.
And all of them, every last one, leaves Williston a broken man; the young Wisconsinite, driving while exhausted, rolls his truck and ends up with a broken vertebra; the electrician’s wife, lonely and overworked with the kids, demands he return home or else; the truck driver flunks a background check and walks away, embittered with Reverend Reinke. And the latter two?
That gets into spoiler territory.
Not Invented Here: Reinke starts out as a fairly unadorned hero; a plainspoken, very Lutheran-looking man who seems to be doing a superhuman job serving as minister, homeless shelter operator, counselor and rescuer. At the beginning of the film, it appears his biggest enemy is Willison’s status quo; a city council that’s maneuvering to curb the Overnighter program; neighbors that are alarmed at all the new people coming to the church and working their way up the hierarchy (they usually start out sleeping in cars in the parking lot, at least in the mild summer weather at the beginning of the film; then they move up to floor space in the hall; then, finally, a cot in the fellowship hall).
The other glimpses we see of the locals are straight out of central casting; city councilpeople intoning their reservations, locals outraged about their status quo being upset; I was almost surprised John Lithgow didn’t come to the City Council and demand a ban on dancing.
Truth be told, outside the congregation and City Hall and the central casting Small Town Regulars, we see very little of Willison; neighbors that Reinke canvasses to try to reassure them about his charges; a newspaper publisher and his greasy, slimy reporter; one farm woman who, burned by a man who’d rented RV space before relapsing into methamphetamine, greeted Reinke and his film crew with a hunting rifle and a broomstick.
And then comes the word that some of the men have “sex offender” on their background checks. And the movie’s third act begins.
Faith No More: I’m going to try to walk the thin line between spoiling and reviewing, here.
Reverend Reinke, it turns out, falls short of his Christian ideals, as a believer and a minister.
On the way there, of course, we find that nobody was saved. The unemployable are still unemployed. The homeless end up with noplace to live. The unredeemed, aren’t.
I say “of course” because that is the cultural elites’ narrative these days; faith is beyond futility; it is absurdity. A few of the plucky heroes whom Reverend Reinke “saved” earlier in the film turned out to be pretty spectacularly un-saved.
All that is good in the movie turns out to be “good” – in sarcastic scare quotes.
Including – no spoilers, here – Reverend Reinke himself.
Every single person in the movie ends up, on one level or another, destroyed.
Expectations: Now, I don’t mean to say The Overnighters isn’t an excellent bit of storytelling. It is.
And I’m not saying it’s not worth seeing, if you get the chance; it is. The cinematography is absolutely glorious. The editing and pacing and the storytelling itself is enthralling. If I had to give it a rating, I’d say “Four stars, and I didn’t like it”.
Because truth be told, I walked into the movie fully expecting:
- Prosperity to be shown as a curse (or a mirage),
- North Dakotans to be depicted as clenched, bigoted caricatures, and
- Faith, the Church and its people to be shown up as frauds, hypocrites and hollow shells of sanctimony (or, at best, people whose flaws overwhelm and overshadow all good about them).
And I expected it because – the guy for whom the little ball of rage still burns deep down inside tells me – that’s the way it’s always been. From the intelligentsia’s chortling about “Buffalo Commons” a decade ago, to MPR’s tut-tutting about all that unseemly prosperity on the Plains, to the NYTimes’ Gail Collins giggling her idiot giggle about having no place to shop and waiting in line at the Williston McDonalds, The Overnighters is an excellent story that fits squarely, unsurprisingly and predictably within the narrative.
It’s exactly what I expected.
And I wasn’t disappointed – or, put another way, I was deeply disappointed.