'A Gray State': Film Review | Tribeca 2017

A riveting combination of political commentary and true crime story.

Werner Herzog is the executive producer of Erik Nelson's documentary about the mysterious deaths of an alt-right filmmaker and his family.

Right-wing media provocateur Alex Jones recently admitted in court that he’s merely “playing a character” — thereby lending an ironic subtext to Erik Nelson’s documentary about the deaths of aspiring filmmaker David Crowley and his family. Exploring the alt-right phenomenon through the prism of a conspiracy theory involving its subject’s demise, A Gray State, in which Jones makes a brief appearance, provides timely political commentary along with a fascinating true-life crime tale. The film recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

A veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Crowley had been working for years on a magnum opus, an independent film entitled Gray State. A dystopian thriller set in the not-too-distant future in which the federal government tramples on its oppressed citizens, the project proved enticing enough that a trailer posted on YouTube garnered over 2.6 million views. It targeted a libertarian, alt-right audience and seemed to have found it.

By early 2015, however, financing had proved elusive and Crowley had still not gotten around to actually making his film. Then the unthinkable happened. He, his wife, and 5-year-old daughter were found shot to death in their suburban Minnesota home, with the phrase “Allah Akbar” written in blood on the wall. Rumors quickly circulated that Crowley and his family had been murdered by shadowy government forces, but as the film slowly reveals, the truth was far more prosaic, if no less tragic.

A Gray State features copious amounts of home-movie footage as well as commentary by Crowley’s colleagues, friends, and, most movingly, his father. It also includes extensive footage of the charismatic Crowley shooting scenes for the trailer, as well as glimpses of his intensive preparation, such as an entire wall covered with index cards and Post-it notes. Together, they delineate an inexorable slide into deep depression. Unexpectedly redeployed into military service just weeks after getting married, Crowley returned home bitter and disillusioned. His once happy marriage began to crumble, and both he and his wife withdrew from friends and family. Distraught journal entries reveal the increasing despair and disaffection that led him to commit murder/suicide, with one friend sadly comparing the couple to “Sid and Nancy.”

Although several self-identified “citizen investigators” attempted to prove that the family was murdered — “Credibility means nothing to me,” one of them ironically comments — the film makes its case methodically and persuasively. Nelson, who’s produced such Werner Herzog documentaries as Grizzly Man (Herzog returns the favor by serving as this film’s executive producer), clearly knows his way around obsessive personalities, and in Crowley he’s found a compelling textbook example of obsession descending into madness.

Production: A&E Indie Films, Creative Differences
Director: Erik Nelson
Producers: Amy Briamonte, Erik Nelson
Executive producers: Werner Herzog, Molly Thompson, Elaine Frontain Bryant, Robert Sharenow
Directors of photography: David Crowley, Thomas Kaufman
Editor: Lara Andre
Composer: David Crowley
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival
93 minutes