Film review: Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere
“Truth is stranger than fiction”
This is a simple but fascinating, often darkly humorous, look at a small town mystery, and the reaction of its inhabitants, based on the book of the same name by Poe Ballantine.
The background story: Steven Haataja, a brilliant theoretical mathematician, takes a position as math professor at a small state college in Chadron, Nebraska, a town of under 6,000 people surrounded by forest, grasslands, farms and ranches. He seems to have settled in and been accepted by the locals. Three months later, just before the end of the semester, he suddenly disappears. No explanation can be found. Some time later, he is found to have died under bizarre circumstances. The police are unable to come to a conclusion about his death or identify a likely suspect if he was, in fact, murdered. The resulting information vacuum is filled by suspicion and rampant, sometimes strange, speculation by the people of Chadron.
This is the situation that David Jarrett explores in his documentary. But instead of limiting himself to the contradictory forensic evidence relating directly to Professor Haataja’s death, he turns his attention to the town itself. Interviewing author Poe Ballantine, the local sheriff, Haataja’s fellow professors, and various town residents, he provides an overview of a quaint, conservative, friendly town, outwardly conventional but with unknown qualities lurking under the surface. The only editorialising comes indirectly, through the careful arrangement and juxtaposition of the interview statements and other footage, but the technique works extremely well.
Jarrett lets the residents tell the story, but includes information from other sources which adds a great deal to our picture of Chadron. For example, he narrates town images with readings from the sheriff’s record of emergency calls. Accounts of, for instance, a request for help with a werewolf at the roadside, followed up by a call to cancel police assistance because the werewolf had morphed back into human form, sends the message that Chadron may not be as ordinary as it appears.
Mystery lovers may enjoy trying to solve Professor Haataja’s murder, but the film provides us with no solution. One thing that makes this film intriguing is that the collection of ordinary, benign, small town people present so many possible suspects and possible motives – unlikely in every case, but always just barely possible.