Director Erik Nelson crafts a troubling and cautionary American tale.
In January 2015, David Crowley, an aspiring filmmaker and Iraq War veteran, was found dead along with his wife and young daughter in their suburban home in Minnesota. The death was a shock to the community and to the couples’ families, who couldn’t imagine who could’ve executed their loved ones so brutally. But the crime also caught the interest of the alt-right community, who had followed the rise and subsequent fall of Crowley, best known for his unfinished film project, Gray State.
Gray State gained a substantial following after Crowley released a trailer for the project, one that showed a bleak future for America, dissolving into a dystopian police state where civil liberties were stripped away by the government. Gray State tapped into many of the fears laden in conspiracy theory communities, such as FEMA camps and the idea that the U.S. government was planning a full-scale war with its citizens who, after being stripped of their guns, would be rendered helpless. In some respects, Crowley’s vision felt as timely and vital to the libertarian community as The Handmaid’s Tale might feel to many in the liberal community today. Gray State was more than a film to them, it was a warning of a future that still might be prevented if enough people sat up and paid attention.
In the documentary A Gray State, we meet Crowley through a dizzying array of media unearthed by director Erik Nelson. Even in the age of social media, where the most minute and mundane are meticulously documented for a life lived on the internet, Crowley’s output — 13,000 photographs and hundreds of hours of video — feels excessive. “It’s the selfie culture; anything anyone does is significant and should be shared, and if we share enough we might be famous on YouTube,” Nelson tells us in an interview during the Tribeca Film Festival. But even still, he was surprised by the videos and how Crowley took care to document things he felt were important — his daughter describing a bloody scrape or his wife claiming she had contact with a demon — and framing them the way a filmmaker would.
But as Nelson explains, the excessive footage didn’t just provide insight into the lives of Crowley and his family. It ultimately explained their tragic end, which was not the result of a government conspiracy to keep Crowley quiet but instead a tragic murder-suicide committed by a man under enormous pressure. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the unexpected success of Gray State’s trailer and the public clamoring for Crowley to deliver a full-length film begin to chip away at him. But the onslaught of “behind-the-scenes” material of Crowley’s home life also show the subtle dysfunction in his relationship with his wife, Komel, which feels very controlling. It is something reinforced by her business partner, who often lamented that she felt as if her friend wore two faces, her own and the one her husband wanted her to wear.
Still, there are many who refuse to accept that Crowley was capable of such a heinous crime and instead use conspiracy as a way to provide order to the chaos they are confronted with. But for Nelson, the tragic end of the Crowley family speaks to something much larger. “I would believe that Crowley was killed by a conspiracy, an insidious conspiracy and I completely will say that the film makes that statement, but it’s not the conspiracy everyone thinks,” he says. “It’s the conspiracy of narcissism, of casual violence where you play with guns and then want to do it for real and go to Iraq. It’s the conspiracy of the corruption that got us into the Iraq War. It’s the stigmatization of Muslims in America. It’s the Hollywood ‘anyone can be a director and all you have to do is make a movie and be famous and I’m gonna be famous.’ All of these are dry rot in America and this conspiracy, David got sucked into all of them simultaneously.”
Thanks in part to the involvement of both families — Crowley’s appears in the film, Komel’s was involved but ultimately declined to be on camera — A Gray State never feels exploitative. Instead, much of the footage is left up to the audience to interpret and unpack. There’s Crowley, sitting in front of his computer in fatigues, holding a gun and watching Alex Jones videos. But there is also Komel baking cupcakes with the couple’s young daughter, Raniya. The footage is expansive but also honest as Crowley filmed everything he found value in, primarily of himself and his project, but also of his family.
It’s hard to explain what makes A Gray State feel so compelling when the audience knows that ultimately the young talent being introduced at the beginning of the film will be snuffed out. But as Nelson states, it is a story that is vital to tell because it is not a singular one. “It is a cautionary tale, and thats why when someone says why make this film, [the answer is] because there are other David Crowleys and there are other Komel Crowleys out there, and there are different kinds of domestic abuse or domestic violence. Crowley’s was psychological. He had her under his thumb, and whatever fault lines might have existed in her psyche, he pried them open and we don’t know what happened. If someone out there says you’re acting just like David Crowley or someone recognizes that that kind of mind control, then the film has done its job. And I think the best way to do it is to show it from the inside out.”
As the documentary closes out, it shows footage of the couple’s dog, the only survivor and witness of the massacre in the home, who has now been adopted by David’s brother — footage Nelson admits is intentional. “I wanted this film to be deliberately untidy…it’s open-ended and deliberately so.” With no easy answers in sight, it’s a bittersweet reminder of the sliver of mercy that took place on that fateful day, as well as the soupçon of tragedy that now clings to man’s burdened best friend.