A Gray State Review
A Gray State is a 2017 documentary about the mysterious death of a fringe political filmmaker, who was found dead alongside members of his family in their suburban Minnesota.
The twist in Erik Nelson‘s newest film The Gray State comes pretty early, and it’s undeniably jarring. We begin with some admittedly exciting footage of what appears to be a behind-the-scenes making-of shots of a passionate filmmaker directing action scenes for his upcoming film. What it becomes though is something altogether different when it all turns real in this challenging, deeply personal examination of troubling tragedy.
David Crowley is a man on a mission, an Iraq and Afghanistan war vet who became bitter by the experience, signing up for one ideal and learning of another, stating what the United States is doing in the Middle East is morally reprehensible. On his return to Minnesota, with his new wife Komel, and having a daughter Raniya, he falls further into a belief that America is increasingly spiralling into a government-led police state. He concentrates this obsession into an idea for a film, called ‘Gray State,’ a self-funded small project that eventually blossoms after he assembles a convincing trailer and posts it on social media. From there, he ends up a star of right-wing advocates, gaining the most traction after an appearance on InfoWars with infamous incendiary Alex Jones. Mired in conspiracy though, it all comes to a terrifying end when neighbors discover a gruesome scene in early January, 2015. David, Komel, and Raniya are dead in their house with cryptic words drawn in blood on the walls.
Nelson frames the film as a mystery, like an extended episode of a TV crime reality show, giving us the outcome and then the story leading to it. We meet a large number of participants – including David himself – in this drama who piece together the timeline from his years before joining the military to the astonishing growth of support (and otherwise) for his project. This groundswell clearly sideswiped him, but pushed him further into the alt-right where he became a public speaker and voice for many who deeply believe the United States is soon to be lost unless action is taken. But that’s not all, we eventually find out, going on inside his quiant suburban home.
Things begins to unravel as David apparently succumbs to his paranoia. However, he learns to wear masks. He gets a meeting in Hollywood where two producers commit to give him $30 million to get his movie made, convinced he is a straight-up and earnest filmmaker. That is until Nelson plays them an audio tape of David prior to the meeting that paints an entirely different picture. It’s unsettling. David later says that he doesn’t even need to write it, that people will do it, manipulating followers of the cause for their money.
It only gets darker from there, where his friends and colleagues detail David’s slow fall down the rabbit hole, calling him a controller, unable to collaborate, and slipping away. Komel’s sister tells of her fears and we witness a video of five-year-old Raniya describing a fantasy that is honestly, deeply chilling. Like much of the film as it moves forward, it becomes hard to watch.
What Nelson does best is to let David and his many personal videos tell the story, offering astonishingly in-depth insight into his journey. It’s peppered by dozens of people affected by his work and death. There is much I have not mentioned, moments on film that are disturbing and even upsetting, each layering this unanswerable mystery in murkier waters. A Gray State has much to say, sometimes with devastating results. It’s a jarring human story that unravels with frightening clarity, where we are witness to tragedy unfold and feel, like so many in David and Komel’s life, helpless.
A Gray State Review
Movie description: A Gray State is a 2017 documentary about the mysterious death of a fringe political filmmaker, who was found dead alongside members of his family in their suburban Minnesota.
Director(s): Erik Nelson
Actor(s): Mason Hendricks, Danny August Mason, Chris Peck