A GRAY STATE (2017) is a gripping, sad look at the life and death of a conspiracy-theorist-turned-filmmaker

We are in a strange political moment right now. Thanks in large part to the rise of the Internet and social media, conspiracy theorists are on the rise, able to find each other and reinforce each other’s beliefs and delusions more easily than ever before. The Internet has also promoted the rise of certain media personalities who feed into these beliefs, like InfoWars’ Alex Jones, who makes a living stoking fears and causing fact-free panic about the imminent takeover of America by shadowy, nebulous global forces who hate freedom. Conspiracy theorists have always been around, but our current President is a big fan of InfoWars, lending unprecedented weight on a national level to Jones’ particular brand of paranoia.

Jones is pictured to at left with David Crowley, the filmmaker at the center of A Gray State, a new documentary on Netflix now about his life, work, and death. Crowley is a charismatic, handsome, likable veteran who took up filmmaking after leaving the military. He took two years to film a concept trailer for his passion project, also called Gray State, a dystopian “near-future” thriller about the RFID-chipping of American citizens and subsequent execution of anyone who refuses… a coming global catastrophe Crowley and conspiracy theorists call “megadeath.” On the back of the concept trailer, he was able to crowd-fund $61,538 to support himself while he wrote the script for the feature-length film. In the meantime, the hype around the trailer made him an alt-right media personality himself, and he toured the country speaking about the evils of the Federal Reserve, the UN, the military, and more.

And, also, A Gray State argues, he was privately battling serious mental illness that was spiraling rapidly out of his control, and in 2014, he shot and killed his wife and daughter before scrawling messages on the wall in his wife’s blood and then turning the gun on himself.

“No wonder it was catnip for conspiracy theorists,” says journalist Cory Zurowski in the documentary. Conspiracy theorists around the web pounced on the story, and almost immediately after his death, began promoting the theory that he was murdered by the government because his Gray State film was too close to the truth. Now, a team of “Citizen Investigators” crawls through information about the case, rejecting expert analysis — that, pretty clearly, Crowley was the one who killed his family and himself — in favor of their own gut feeling that it just doesn’t add up. This is dangerous, and it’s a large part of how we got to this particular moment, with a man susceptible to conspiracy theorizing like this sitting in the Oval Office.

While A Gray State is an interesting, gripping, sad, difficult watch, its one major failing is that it doesn’t do much to investigate this side of the story — the connection between Crowley’s interest and susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and his fans’ need to believe that he was martyred. What connections are made are surface-level: he was making a movie about conspiracy theories come to life, so a conspiracy theory has developed around his death. The film certainly makes no moves to grapple with the larger political implications of the story — what it says about our country that we now have an administration who lends credence to Alex Jones and his ilk. Crowley died before Donald Trump was elected, of course, but while watching this film, you can’t help but wonder how he would have felt knowing the government was in the hands of someone who agreed with him, who also fully believed that the government was evil and that loosely-defined conceptions of “liberty” and “patriotism” should be held above anything else.

But: that’s not the aim of this film, and that’s okay, too. Instead, this is a deeply personal story, and it’s compelling enough to watch how the narrative mutates and twists throughout the last few years of Crowley’s life; as the pressure to deliver on his film grows, so too does his mental illness. Luckily for documentarian Erik Nelson — and, I suspect, what drew him to the story — Crowley obsessively filmed and documented those final few years, capturing footage of himself at the playground with his daughter, working out at the gym, fooling around with the family dog, practicing tactical military moves in his house while shouting things like “I won’t do it, sir! It’s too risky!”, and mapping out his screenplay on a massive wall-sized chart (which the documentary smartly uses as a framing device and organizational tool for its own narrative about Crowley).

Nelson was a producer on Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (and Herzog acts as a producer here), which was about a man named Timothy Treadwell with a similar compulsion for self-documentation, who filmed himself living among grizzly bears… and accidentally captured footage of his own death. Grizzly Man is about the man who lived among the bears, yes, but it’s also about Man’s need to leave a record of his own life, to document and record and prove that he was here.

A Gray State takes a similar tack, for a while; Nelson shows some of Crowley’s footage to key people from his life and captures their reactions, as they are at first amused by his antics and filled with sadness at their loss. Later, once the documentary has unspooled the narrative and peeled back layers that showed his unhealthy home life and the clear warning signs that something very dark was coming, these scenes are filled with portent and omen. There’s no moment in A Gray State with as much impact as the scene in Grizzly Man where Herzog listens to (but doesn’t play for the audience) the recording of Treadwell’s death and is visibly shaken by what he hears. There are, however, comparable moments, such as a deeply unsettling sequence where the filmmakers uncover a recording of Crowley’s daughter, looking frightened and rambling about blood on the walls and her mother being killed. As reporter Tom Lyden notes after he’s shown the footage, there’s almost a “Redrum! Redrum!” quality to it, a Shining-like premonition of death.

Lyden is an interesting commentator in the film; early-on, he mentions having gotten his hands on Crowley’s hard-drives filled with photos and recordings, looking for “the why” of the murders. He stumbles on a photo of the crime scene, with ALLAHU AKBAR painted on the wall in blood; along with pictures of the the Quran found near the bodies, the Muslim connection forms the centerpiece of his TV news report about the case.

But… these pieces of information don’t really get at the “why” of it all. They certainly hint at an undercurrent running through the documentary, one that’s ever-present, one that Crowley had to be aware of himself. That is: Crowley is a white man who joined the military because he “liked guns,” whose friends and family say he hated Islam after being deployed to Iraq. However, his wife was a Muslim woman, who converted to Christianity after marrying him, later becoming a “spiritualist” along with him. Clearly, the man had a complicated relationship with race and religion; his own friends interviewed in the documentary admit to being suspicious of his wife because she was Muslim.

Though he lets Crowley’s own writings, photographs, and videos do most of the narrativizing, Nelson wisely resists letting Crowley turn himself into a martyr. The film posits the idea that the Muslim phrases and books left around the crime scene are intentional red herrings, left behind by Crowley to spark precisely the kinds of conspiracy theories now running rampant around the Internet after his death… a way to make sure people remember him and valorize him despite the horrific, unforgivable fact that he killed his family. At one point, Nelson plays a recording of Crowley rehearsing for a pitch meeting to Hollywood investors, where he clearly states that he views his fans as “fish in a barrel,” who “open their wallets” when you say the phrase “New World Order.” Despite what he told Alex Jones and the crowd at a Ron Paul rally and who-knows-how-many-other people, in this recording, he describes his primary motivations for making Gray State as wanting to “make coin” and jumpstart a filmmaking career.

However, as we know, expertise and credibility don’t matter; this “why” to the narrative is rejected by Crowley’s fans, despite it coming from his own mouth. There is already backlash to the documentary; one video posted on YouTube four days ago, called MURDERED Gray State David Crowley Painted As a Lunatic by NETFLIX, has already racked up 43,650 views. Leaving aside the fact that this isn’t a Netflix Original documentary, it makes no difference to Crowley’s fans that the documentary is made up almost wholly of Crowley’s own recordings and ramblings. The narrative it presents doesn’t conform to their already-set preconceptions of what happened to him, and therefore, it’s to be rejected, and paradoxically reinforces what they already think they know — that Crowley came too close to the truth and had to be silenced for it.

A Gray State doesn’t — can’t — find the “why” to explain why David did what he did, and it consciously avoids engaging with the “what it means.” However, as a document — of this particular moment in our culture, of one man’s life and death and struggle with mental illness, and of, as Crowley himself notes, society’s willingness to trust and believe a charismatic man who can show off some arm veins — it’s a compelling one, and very much worth a watch.



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Eric Langberg

Interests: bad horror movies, queering mainstream films, Classic Hollywood.