A Gray State (2017)
Director: Erik Nelson
Producer: Erik Nelson and Amy Briamonte
by Jon Cvack
Before putting this on, it was one of those rare nights where I wasn’t in the mood for anything, switching off Mindhunter as it was far too dark for my mood, trying The Toys That Made Us which was far too bright, and settling on this film which had a pretty high rating and sounded like a solid enough story. I then saw Werner Herzog’s producing credit and thanked the movie gods as this is one of the strangest true crime documentaries I’ve ever seen.
The story’s focused primarily on aspiring filmmaker and former Iraq veteran David Crowley who’s introduced as knee deep in a feature film he’s making which is essentially an Alex Jones-inspired dystopia set in present day. The poster (which is actually pretty cool) describes it all, featuring a person fully decked in tactical assault gear, his back turned toward camera, FEMA written where we’d usually see SWAT. We’re never positive what the movie is exactly about so much as that the Big Government most conspiracy theorists fear has finally turned on the people and is now carrying out a brutal massacre. During the film’s development, a deeply disturbed David Crowley would go on to kill his wife and child, writing “Allahu Akbar” in blood on the wall of his home where he carried out the murder.
One of the earliest images that lingers in your mind is when the 20-something David Crowley shows us dozens of pieces of paper glued to his wall; outlining his script with colored tabs all hanging about, with pieces of stringing connecting each one. I once had a similar, though far less ornate set up in my room, having written an early Road to the Well (2016) draft in a notebook, and then removing those pages and gluing them to my wall. There’s a feeling of seriousness to the act; as though what you’re working on is no longer an abstract idea, but an evolving and actual thing. In other ways it’s simply a way to show off; to make what you’re working seem more complicated or difficult than others might assume.
Watching David present his wall of ornate notes, listing off all of the screenwriting how to book terms in lightening order, we quickly learn that none of his film’s story really makes all that much sense; as it was much more about David wanting to convey his genius to the world than about writing a good story. What catches your eye is that the design looks like a cheap recreation from a film - as though something you’d see The Number 23 (2007) or an equally “heavy” paranoid thriller that fails to actualize its high concept.
David Crowley had served two tours of duty in Iraq, and while we never know what he ultimately saw, we do know that he was forced into his second tour, not wanting to return, and that upon returning, he was dealing with severe mental problems. Gray State is enough of a success story to make any aspiring filmmaker envious, as even though he was living in Ohio at the time, David developed a teaser trailer that soon attracted Alex Jones fans, even getting an Alex Jones social media shout out which blew up their crowdfunding campaign, raising over sixty thousand dollars for David Crowley to write and develop the screenplay; though it did leave me a bit confused, as though we see a bunch of production work, I’m not sure if this was all for the teaser, or stuff he actually shot in the hope of attracting additional investors. I assume the latter, as he does in fact, make it out to Hollywood and attracts investor interest after committing his murder-suicide.
The movie’s one fault is that it occasionally takes a more sensationalist position to the story, drifting a bit too close to true crime as entertainment rather than respecting the victim and their friends and family. As a result, it’s difficult to understand exactly what might have happened to David, other than that, in dealing with his severe mental trauma from the war, he began developing paranoia about the government, drifting toward Alex Jones and alt-right conspiracy theories. After marrying his wife and having their first child, he began talking to his friends less and less, allegedly commanding his wife to become increasingly isolated as well, which worried her friends. Coincidentally, the New York Times just released a disturbing story about another impressionable 20-something man who got sucked into an alt-right YouTube rabbit hole
What begins as a mystery about how making the film connected to the murder quickly became more about a man’s decaying mind, once finding solace in creativity and conspiracy communities, before finally snapping. It’s this final step which I felt too little time was spent. The filmmaker suggests we will never know what happened, as when asking a researcher about the Allahu Ackbar quote, he says David likely deliberately planted it there to create a cryptic conclusion. To think that this guy could have had his wildest dreams and that it wasn’t enough - that his mind was so broken that it resulted in this tragic and heartbreaking conclusion - paints a bleak picture of humanity. There isn’t always a reason for events of this sort, and it was David’s obsession with countering this fact that helps to prove the premise. It’s not a perfect movie, but for any fan of true crime, you will not be disappointed.
BELOW: David Crowley's concept trailer
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