There’s a clip from Billy Wilder’s great 1951 noir “Ace in the Hole” used about halfway through Dave Janetta’s new documentary “Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere” that sums up the appeal of these kinds of lurid true-crime stories pretty darn well. “Bad news is the best news,” says Kirk Douglas’ sneering, cynical newsman. “Because good news is no news.” It’s an appropriate quote in the case of Janetta’s film, which turns out to be about two stories. On the surface, it’s another sensational, can-you-believe-this-is-fucking-real mystery set in the type of small, woodsy town where a man’s worth is measured in his word and his handshake. With the shots of beautiful industrial rot, sleepy small-town inertia and lumber (lots of lumber) that open ‘Love and Terror,’ we already sense the uncanny influence of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s game-changing “Twin Peaks.” And yet there is another story at play here, that of Ed Hughes a.k.a. Poe Ballantine, the man who wrote the memoir on which Janetta’s film is based. With Ballantine, we get a narrator who is, in so many less words, complicated. He’s sometimes prickly, generous with his knowledge and haunted by past periods of grief and depression. The author’s need to make sense of the confounding secret at the film’s core – the sudden and unexplained disappearance of a mild-mannered math teacher in their shared hometown of Chadron, Nebraska – becomes almost as much a subject as the initial mystery itself.
Chadron is the kind of deeply old-fashioned small town where, as one local puts it, “there are no secrets.” It’s the type of place boasting establishments with names like Wrecker’s Road and the Olde Main Street Inn that are not meant to be kitschy or ironic. Early on in ‘Love and Terror,’ we come to know the unpretentious, salt-of-the-earth denizens of Chadron: the local sheriff, teachers, a grad student, a bartender. They describe a harrowing wildfire that ravaged the Chadron countryside in 2006 (“It started off as a little bit of smoke on the horizon in the morning”). The fire – which had been the result of lightning during the county’s dry season – looks like something out of Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” remake when we first see it through archival news footage. It’s an ominous portent of things to come, a sign of impending doom. The fires were the first of many red herrings in regards to the disappearance (and some say death) of Steven Haataja: a wry, erudite, mild-mannered theoretical mathematician who vanished without a trace one day, leaving his peers and friends baffled as to his whereabouts. Haataja certainly stood out upon his arrival in Chadron: he was a music buff, who apparently had perfect pitch, and could recite scenes from the films of Andrei Tarkovsky word-for-word. Citizens of the town would often joke that he worked for the government. Weeks after the fire, Haatja’s body was discovered out in the woods outside Chadron, burned beyond recognition. The possible reasons behind Haataja’s disappearance and just how his burned corpse ended up in that field turns out to be a fascinating story, but too often, Janetta employs unnecessary and distracting narrative methods that ultimately take away from the story as a whole.
The film opens with ponderous, so-serious-it’s-silly voiceover that seems more akin to an audio book of Mickey Spillane than any real narration. The film’s score is also wonky – a sort of seasick lounge music that alternately distracts the viewer and ups the film’s novelty factor. Once the viewer is acclimated to the film’s unusual rhythms, Janetta’s tale takes on a disorienting, intriguing tone. The quietude of Chadron is raw and compelling, and there are times when the inaction of the town threatens to spill over into genuine menace. The social dynamics of Chadron also come into full focus when Haataja disappears. A strange energy rises to the surface. The bizarre 911 calls posted in the daily Chadron newspaper – including a particularly memorable one about a werewolf on the roadside – begin to take on an particularly sinister quality. A teacher threatens to deputize his students in the search for Haataja if he determines the local authorities are not doing their job (suffice to say, he butts heads with the town sheriff). And all the while, there’s Ballantine: a sardonic presence, frequently seen cooking, and a man who sees a great deal of himself in Haataja once he becomes obsessed with his disappearance. The essential elements here are interesting enough without Janetta having to employ distracting music, on-screen text and goofy animations to drive the point home.
The juxtaposition of Haataja’s disappearance and Ballantine’s personal ups and downs gives the film an absorbing sort of friction, one that doesn’t always work to its benefit. The mystery surrounding Haataja’s disappearance – which has been speculated to be foul play, suicide and even murder in one case – requires a requisite build-up so that when we learn the horrible truth, it shakes us to our core. Ballantine is a fascinating character, full of contradictions and driven by ego, wanderlust and curiosity. The sections of the film devoted to his wife and child are interesting inasmuch as they sketch in details about this particular character, but they detract from the momentum of the growing mystery at the center of the film. Ballantine and Haataja were neighbors, and while it makes perfect sense that Ballantine would sit down and write (it was, after all, what he did for a living) in order to make sense of what happened to this humble man who was new in town, their connection never feels as tangible as it should to the audience.
“Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere” is a kooky, uneven, mostly entertaining case of real-life weirdness, a gumbo of disparate elements that never quite congeals. I wished director Janetta had jettisoned the film’s head-scratching score and done away with the narrative gimmicks and told the story in a more straightforward way. At one point, Ballantine says that Haataja’s disappearance – a case that remains open to this day – has all the classic elements of a good story, and he’s right. We become invested in the circumstances surrounding Haataja’s vanishing from Chadron: Ballantine’s obsession eventually becomes ours too. The ungainly technical elements of the production aren’t enough to derail the whole enterprise – and the well of secrets at the film’s center does more than hold our attention – but it keeps ‘Love and Terror’ from being the powerhouse doc it could have been. [B-]