A Gray State is engaging and watchable, but nothing more.
A Gray State is a fast-paced, entertaining true crime documentary, however its first act suggests grander, ultimately unfulfilled ambitions on the part of director Erik Nelson. It wants to comment on the filmmaking process, on 21st century Americans’ proclivity for conspiracy theorizing and on veterans’ issues and rights. Any thesis on these topics is, however, barely articulated in the film. A Gray State is engaging and watchable, but nothing more.
The documentary investigates the deaths of war veteran-cum-filmmaker David Crowley, his wife and his five-year-old daughter. Crowley’s neighbors found his and his family’s bodies in their home in January 2015. Police ruled the incident a double homicide-suicide, arguing that Crowley had killed all three of them on Christmas Day. Crowley had been working on a dystopian action film set in a near-future U.S. (his film was called Gray State) which touched on themes popular among the lunatics who listen to Alex Jones and his ilk. Crowley’s film featured barbarous FEMA camps, a federal government off the rails and a pending UN invasion all threatening the survival of the heroic protagonists.
From this setup in the opening minutes, A Gray State sends narrative threads in three different directions: one towards a couple of self-appointed sleuths/conspiracy mongers whose only concern is unearthing the obvious truth, namely that Crowley was knocked off by the government because his filmmaking was too threatening to those in power. Another focuses on Crowley himself, as a veteran and war dissenter who completed tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter against his will. The third strand is a more thorough analysis of Crowley’s directorial ambitions and his ultimately successful efforts to find a Hollywood funder to give him $30 million to complete his project.
Nelson quickly settles on his film’s narrative center: Crowley’s filmmaking as a metaphor for his mental state. This is a logical choice. The conspiracy nuts are clearly too out-there to carry a plotline and Nelson’s source material is much more about Crowley’s work and life than it is about veterans’ affairs.
Crowley’s Gray State seems like a mess. While in film school, he made a conceptual trailer with the hopes of getting enough money to write the script. He succeeded. He then wrote most of the script and found his backers in Hollywood. But it is never clear in A Gray State if Crowley had truly figured out his filmmaking process or the plot of his film. He was obviously enthralled during the trailer-making phase and Nelson’s footage makes this plain. In fact, the whole family and Crowley’s close friends—most of whom were close collaborators on Gray State—are shown as happy and thriving.
Where things begin to slowly fall apart is in Crowley’s screenwriting phase. He gets bogged down sorting through details, and his clamoring fans—many of whom were recruited through Crowley’s appearances on various Alex Jones media—grow restless at the lack of an end product and begin hassling Crowley. He begins to retreat into a shell. He disappears from social media, where he had been prolific, and even his wife succumbs to his dour spirits. The couple become increasingly alienated. Eventually, they convert themselves to an extra-baroque version of ecstatic spiritualism and begin having visions.
A Gray State does not answer the most fundamental questions regarding Crowley’s decision to murder his family and himself on Christmas Day, 2014. It does thoroughly convince any rational viewer that the police ruling was correct (not that rationality has ever been the standard for a conspiracy theorist!) while offering a captivating look into the life of a very troubled man. The questions left as the end credits roll are worthwhile ones, both those about Crowley as an individual and the U.S. as a shared community. These questions, of course, are only more pertinent this week, in the wake of a war veteran shooting up a church full of people in Texas.