In a scene midway through A Gray State, aspiring filmmaker David Crowley is speaking to a crowd of Libertarians gathered at a Ron Paul rally, building up hype for his still-unfinished screenplay from a lectern like he’s campaigning for office instead of for an Indiegogo fund. He gives his pitch, citing the coming FEMA-camp-operating, RFID-implanting technocratic police state that was his inspiration for his film. “With a united effort, we can keep this film in the fiction section,” he says to a wall of applause.
The film, A Gray State, was never in the fiction section or nonfiction section, because Crowley is dead, having killed himself, his wife, and his young daughter near the end of 2014. After a period of increasing paranoia and withdrawal during the development of his film, their three bodies were discovered by a neighbor, the family dog Paleo (named for the diet) the only survivor. The bizarre, horrific circumstances of the murder-suicide were detailed in Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker article “Death of a Dystopian” earlier this year, and it’s a story of the apocalyptic imagination of the conspiracy-theorist and alt-right communities where Crowley found a huge groundswell of grassroots support. What’s left to A Gray State filmmaker Erik Nelson is a more emotional, psychological story, one about the powerful drug of Hollywood-style storytelling, the intoxication of violence and mythmaking. It’s intermittently successful, but even in its more meandering moments it is a gripping, almost unbearably dark watch.
What is apparent early on is that Nelson’s story isn’t one so much about the conspiracist mentality as it is about a particularly American culture of violence. Crowley grew up fascinated by guns and the military; as a teen he would make movies with his friends with AirSoft guns, striving for as much military accuracy as possible. Once he graduated high school, he enlisted in the military and was sent to Iraq. This being 2003, he, along with the rest of the country, believed the war was just retaliation for 9/11, but while on his tour, he became disillusioned by “what we were doing over there.” In interview footage that was apparently shot for the Gray State website or forthcoming DVD extras, Crowley talks about horrific violence and the moral fog of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a kind of matter-of-fact, “that’s life” flatness, but it’s clear it sent him on a quest to find some truth behind it all.
After returning home, he met and married his wife Komel, a dietitian and Muslim who converted to Christianity after their marriage and became his greatest booster. When he was assigned another tour in 2008, he returned to the Middle East against his will, actively dreading his involvement in the wars. But it was the globalist, interventionist aspect of the wars that turned him off; the trappings of war and combat, the guns and tanks and macho shouting, were still in his blood. As a budding filmmaker, military culture was to Crowley what what symmetry and the Futura font are to Wes Anderson. He returned to his home of Apple Valley, Minnesota, and enrolled in a film school, formulating his idea for an epic cinematic expression of his growing mistrust of the government.
A Gray State is one of a growing number of documentaries that is aided and sometimes cursed by the modern phenomenon of subjects who obsessively document their own lives electronically. Crowley kept everything from footage of his workouts to his obsessive, The Master-esque pitch-meeting rehearsals (played back for the L.A.-based producers he was working with and dubbed “psychotic”), and piecing it together offers a more compelling account of what exactly happened to David Crowley and his family than any police report or conspiracist Facebook group. Many of his social-media followers and Gray State devotees have now committed themselves to exposing what they believe is a government plot to assassinate Crowley before his film could get made; this is largely absent from Nelson’s documentary. It feels like a critical missing piece in a story about the apocalyptic imagination of modern-day Americans, many of whom almost long for the chaos and martial law of dystopian visions like Crowley’s, in order to justify their more nebulous, inconcrete anxieties.
But if that posthumous element is missing, then so is a contemporary one: The voice of video games, which are never seen but are felt through Crowley’s visual and dramatic sensibility, even his approach to creative work. From his pitch rehearsals to his diary notes about his friend, every relationship is a competition, a conquer-or-be-conquered dynamic. He maps out his never-finished script along an entire wall of his living room, connecting thematic elements with string and multicolored Post-its, fully convinced that writing a story is a thing he can beat with the right strategy and tactics. What’s ultimately troubling about A Gray State is how familiar all this is, and how, no matter how off the deep end he ultimately goes, David Crowley is merely an extreme example of something already deeply embedded in politics and Hollywood.