Film Review: ‘A Gray State’

Erik Nelson's documentary probes the mystery of the violent demise of an aspiring filmmaker and libertarian conspiracy theorist.


Anyone who engages in online public discourse these days, even on the most mainstream news sites, has become accustomed to an ever-growing trend: People introducing conspiracy theories as if they were agreed-upon fact. The end of the Obama presidency has done nothing to soften the absolute certainty of many that he was “born in Kenya,” to name just one long-running, high-profile example.

Not long ago, such sentiments would’ve gotten the poster consigned to the same looney bin reserved for UFO-abduction and Bigfoot obsessives. But now, in an era when the concept of “fake news” has given many permission to dismiss any reality that doesn’t fit their private world view, such out-there speculations have hardened into “alternative facts” that fuel a paranoid sense of embattled alienation. It’s no great stretch to assume folks who’ve signed onto this notion might develop — or already have — problems elsewhere in their lives. A worst-case-scenario illustration can be found in Erik Nelson’s documentary “A Gray State.”

“Grizzly Man” producer Nelson (this film is executive produced by that film’s helmer, Werner Herzog) weighs the disturbing recent saga of a charismatic military veteran with libertarian leanings who industriously sought to make a “dystopian future reality movie” portraying America’s imminent conquest at the hands of the “deep state” in service of the “New World Order.” But when that dream actually seemed to be coming true to him, he began unraveling. The result: He, his wife and 5-year-old daughter were all found dead in their home. After nearly a year’s investigation, police drew the conclusion, fairly obvious from evidence here, that it was a double murder/suicide steeped in collective psychosis. Nonetheless, there remain plenty of observers convinced that the government wanted to silence him and his film.

Enamored with all things combat-related from youth, David Crowley joined the Army after high school, but grew disillusioned while serving in Iraq, later saying, “It is morally reprehensible what we are doing in the Middle East.” When that stint was up, he met and married Komel, an equally bright, attractive and motivated Pakistani emigre living in Texas. They moved to a Minnesota suburb to start a family. David was very unhappy about being redeployed, this time to Afghanistan, and suffered an apparent breakdown.

Upon return to civilian life, however, he enrolled in film school and began working in earnest on a planned magnum opus: “Gray State,” a sort of “Red Dawn” for the Alex Jones crowd, portraying a violent U.S. takeover by sinister forces intent on crushing all citizen rights and resistance for the sake of a global corporatocracy. We see Crowley pitching the project as “Less a movie than a warning”: He saw everything from the United Nations to global warming to FEMA as part of a totalitarianist master conspiracy.

He self-funded an impressively slick “concept trailer” to attract backing for the estimated $30 million feature. Not only did it generate Indiegogo donations sufficient to support his screenwriting (while Komel bankrolled the family expenses with a day job), but it made him an instant celebrity spokesman among like-minded bloggers and such, of which there were/are many. He even got a development deal with a Los Angeles film production company.

The latter producers provide a striking sequence here when they belatedly listen to an audiotape Crowley had made of himself, prepping for their pitch meeting. Rambling and manic, he now seems a “psychotic” they were duped by, rather than the ambitious, confident aspirant they thought they’d met. Similarly, friends, family and colleagues remember David as a natural leader, though they also saw worrisome signs near the end — signals amply filled in by the voluminous, increasingly hysterical journals, videos and other forms of compulsive self-expression he left behind.

“A Gray State” eventually turns into a chronicle of madness at once mysterious and fairly clear-cut — the subjects’ closest friends and family have little doubt that whatever happened was a mental health issue that somehow infected both parties of a perhaps unhealthily close marriage. Those who seek an alternative explanation claim Crowley didn’t suffer from PTSD, but it seems likely he was simply undiagnosed and in denial.

It’s a compelling, tragic story, though one might wish the documentary had found more time to probe the shadowy world of those libertarians, survivalists and other political outliers who were already calling much that is commonly accepted about our nation “fake news” before that term was coined. At a time when figures like Jones (a significant on-screen presence here) not only command an ever-growing audience but are considered allies by the White House, a better understanding of the disparate community that embraced Crowley — and seemingly fanned the flames of his meltdown — is overdue in the documentary realm. Is there legitimacy to the doubts about what “really happened” to the Crowleys? Perhaps. But “Gray State” merely touches on without really exploring how such profound doubts have turned a hitherto marginalized, contradiction-riddled subculture into something on the verge of a major political movement.

Nonetheless, even if it hardly provides a definitive take on the milieu — or on the individual case presented here — this well-crafted doc makes for an absorbingly bizarre footnote. One suspects we are living in a historical epoch that is going to provide many such footnotes for some time to come.

Film Review: ‘A Gray State’

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Oct. 3, 2017. Running time: 93 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A First Run Features release of an A&E Indiefilms presentation of a Creative Differences production. Producers: Amy Briamonte, Erik Nelson. Executive producers: Werner Herzog, Molly Thompson, Elaine Frontain Bryant, Robert Sharenow. CREW: Director: Erik Nelson. Camera (color, HD): David Crowley, Thomas Kaufman. Editor: Lana Andre. Music: Crowley.
  • With: Danny Mason, Sean Wright, Jason Allen, Joseph Seaton, Mason Hendricks, Chris Peck, Dan Crowley Sr., Judy Prochnow, Collin Prochnow, Tom Lyden, Cory Zurowki, Greg Fernandez, Dan Hennen, Dan Crowley Jr., Mitch Heil, Sarah Johnson, Adam Shambour, Susan Houghton, Michael O’Donnell, Mike Boggio