Overview: The body of a small town math professor is discovered in a conspicuous position. 2014; 32-20 Productions; 95 minutes.
Substance: Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere attempts many things, but, intentional or not, it functions best as a symbolic line graph tracing the emotional progress of two sad and lonely people. Director Dave Janetta frames the story’s subject, Steve Haataja, as a man who seemingly fell to rock bottom from a normal existence. The story’s main teller, Poe Ballantine (author of the memoir upon which the documentary is based) is a man who has built a functioning normal life after having hit rock bottom. There are many speculative testimonies offered by the local residents of high plains community Chadron, Nebraska, but only the author’s perspective serves any significant narrative purpose. Ballantine is able to understand Haataja in empathetic terms because both seem to share similar dispositions and demons, at least from a clear and faraway perspective. One man survives and the other does not. The chart that manifests from their respective journeys serves as perplexing evidence regarding the uncertainty and volatility of life and the human mind.
Entertainment: As the outline of this comparative relationship is illustrated, it is colored and shaded in strikingly different narrative tones. Segments would feel right at home in a Dateline episode, with their stripped down and basic true crime documentary approach. At times, the movie is a hilarious and absurd investigation of our alien heartland decorated evenly with media Americana, impressive shots of the desolate Nebraska landscape, and voice-over readings of hilarious Police Beat headlines. With no warning, all of that might give way to a stormy Midwest gothic mystery at any scene turn. There’s a lot floating around here, and it all might have made for more eloquent and traceable orbit had the center contained more gravity.
Story: At its heart, the film insists that it is a murder mystery and everything else is tangential or peripheral. And yet, in its presentation of factual evidence, nothing is offered that suggests foul play, aside from the awkward position in which the body was discovered. There aren’t enough clues to build a mystery, unless viewers over-accredit the repeated local sentiment that Haataja “wasn’t the kind of guy to do this” (and many who know the pain of losing a loved one to suicide can attest to the too-often tragic uselessness of this sentiment). A final textual blurb explains that the case is still unsolved and open, currently turned over to state authorities. If murder is still being considered by these investigators, then there must exist more suggestive evidence which, had it been explicitly detailed, might have helped package all of Love and Terror‘s multiple ambitions into a cleanly layered narrative, one capable of juggling the humor, sociology, psychology, and philosophy that instead only comes in entertaining, insightful, but slightly disorientating shifts.