Between the various crazies populating Alexander Payne’s black-and-white “Nebraska” and the three women driven mad by the endlessly flat prairie in Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman,” the Cornhusker State is assuming quasi-mythic proportions these days. The trend continues with Dave Jannetta’s “Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere,” an entertaining, decidedly offbeat documentary that weaves an eclectic web of assorted digressions around the mysterious death of a theoretical math professor in the small Nebraska town of Chadron. Putting the tragicomic icing on the Midwestern cake, the film could catch on nicely in niche play.
The image of the town and its inhabitants that emerges from the doc — based on the book of the same name by Poe Ballantine, who serves as the film’s resident narrator/guide under his real name, Ed Hughes — skews broadly toward the bizarre. The meandering narrative is punctured by audio excerpts from the Chadron newspaper’s most popular feature, a “Police Beat” rundown of calls received by the local sheriff, ranging from disappearing dead cats to encounters with werewolves. Ballantine himself contributes more than his share of anomalies, including a Mexican dentist wife who spoke no English upon arrival, an autistic son who talks a blue streak, and a host of autobiographical musings, complete with illustrative drawings, about the despair and wanderlust that drove him to settle in “nowhere.”
The mystery around which Ballantine structured his book and Jannetta his movie is the sudden disappearance of math professor Steven Haataja in the dead of winter; his body was discovered several months later, tied to a tree and burned to a crisp, an improbable victim of either murder or suicide. As it turns out, suicide — or at least depression — constitutes a unifying theme, as several Chadronites can attest. Ballantine confesses to having come to Chadron expressly to kill himself, but a shift in mood sent him in another direction.
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Haataja’s disappearance gives rise to numerous reminiscences and theories, voiced in interviews with various forthcoming townsfolk, students and faculty. It also caused open warfare between the college criminologist and the local police (already a laughingstock after two cop cars collided head-on responding to the same call), particularly since neighborhood law enforcement expended little effort in ascertaining the missing Haataja’s whereabouts. Once Haataja’s body is discovered, the confusion only deepens. Ballantine retraces the possible routes Haataja may have taken the night he disappeared to wind up where he was found, but can shed no light on the odd circumstances of the man’s demise.
In Ballantine’s dramatic account, events prior to the central enigma assume the dimensions of biblical plagues, as the film opens with eyewitness accounts of a small brush fire that raged out of control to almost swallow the town, which is still bordered by a vast area of blackened earth. An incredible hailstorm that shattered windows and dug sizable chunks out of houses and cars, leaving them looking like relics of Sarajevo, is revisited via Ballentine’s wife’s video and emotional account.
“Love and Terror” works a hybrid twist on the “personal diary” genre, the sporadic intrusions of Ballantine’s ironic perceptions juxtaposed against helmer Jannett’s more straightforward, seemingly objective approach, creating a contemplative interpersonal space and easygoing rhythm that ushers viewers safely through the singularities on view.