“I wish this film wasn’t still relevant,” Erik Nelson said on Oct. 7, 2017 at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas. While Nelson helped Werner Herzog produce his film Grizzly Man, the pair switched roles for A Gray State, in which Nelson was director and Herzog executive producer. Both films chronicle true stories of man’s mental descent into narcissism, isolation, psychotic thinking, extreme politics, and overextended ideals, all swelling into characteristic circumstances for death. A Gray State was met at the festival with bewildered viewers and endless questions that led to staff extending the Q&A beyond its time slot.
In our current culture, the importance of films like this cannot be overstated. In an era of alt-right distrust, fake news extremism and general polarization, how can we find common ground to collectively judge facts? A Gray State deftly finds that common ground and presents what could’ve easily been a polarized story with artful narrative, factuality, and humanity.
Nelson draws attention to covert ways in which reality becomes distorted, politics influence art and art impacts its creator. The documentary employs meta-layers of meaning as the obsessive nature of its protagonist’s filmmaking is what ultimately spawns his demise. This filmmaker within a film—David Crowley—led a large alt-right following, who anticipated the release of his propaganda-like film called Gray State. His movie reveals a dystopian vision of an authoritarian government demolishing American citizens’ rights, leaving “innocents and patriots” to die in the streets. In June of 2014, Crowley scored funding from Hollywood producers after showing them his dramatic trailer. Six months later, Crowley was found dead in 2014 alongside his wife and daughter, their blood spelling out “Allahu Akbar” on the wall. The documentary A Gray State unpacks this true story—equal parts crime mystery and psyche exploration—so naturally that while watching it, I could hardly maintain any higher, critical perspective for structural analysis after the fact. Because of the documentary’s immersive narrative flow and psychological exploration, I never once surfaced from the universe of Crowley’s disturbed mind.
The presence of Crowley’s wife Komel could have easily been understated in the documentary, due to Crowley’s domineering personality and popularity. Even though her family declined to be in the film, Nelson successfully humanizes Komel by focusing on changes in her demeanor as the couple becomes increasingly isolated and shrouded in supernatural belief. Nelson implicitly conveys how the influence of both Crowley’s biggest dream and darkest demon—his own film—leads him down a self-destructive rabbit hole. Insight from Crowley’s journal, his private voice memos and interviews from numerous perspectives provide necessary complexity into Crowley’s outwardly confident but internally psychotic character. Without explicitly asserting how the murder-suicide occurred or the nature of the psychological complicity between Komel and Crowley, the film lays out facts that viewers are led to piece together as they see fit.
In the Q&A, Nelson stated, “This film contains multitudes. And unlike most documentaries, [it] doesn’t come to a conclusion or reinforce a belief you had or solve a social issue and make you feel better. This is the feel-bad movie of the year because there is no way out.”
Documentaries like this—those that admit uncertainties and trust the audience enough not to spell everything out—encourage curiosity, empower viewers, and come much closer to life’s authenticity. Layers of perspective and humanization within the documentary avoid the easily polarized and static nature of stories concerning such characters and crimes. In this way, the documentary walks a fine line between factuality and mystery that reveals the closest truth to Crowley’s complex story and ultimately implies there is no easy way out.
Influences including the fervor of Crowley’s following, his former past as an unwilling soldier, his obsessive personality and the intensity of violence within his filmmaking vision are all recognized as pieces of one disquieting puzzle. A Gray State’s beginning takes its time in building this bedrock of context, which pays off once it becomes clear Crowley’s mental landscape is growing toxic. The pacing of the documentary slows after Crowley secures funding, paralleling his reluctance to actually bring the dystopian vision to life with the mental toll that festers. The film recognizes the covert process through which the demons that Crowley’s fans embraced—violence and hatred—veiled themselves and infiltrated Crowley’s home, mind and family. Nelson never assumes the puzzle is complete—or that it ever can be.
The documentary subtly highlights contradictions within reality through ever-present themes rather than relying on the sequential juxtaposition of symbolic scenes. Paradox is exposed through Crowley’s casual presentation alongside peeks into his neurotic mind through voice memos, conservative investigators bent on pinning Crowley’s death on a Muslim regime insisting that, to them, “credibility means nothing,” and the love Crowley felt for his filmmaking vision alongside the dark mental consequences of bringing such a dystopia to the screen. The unpacking of Crowley’s mission to awaken Americans to their disappearing liberty meant giving up his own mental stability and liberty. Violent clips from Crowley’s film contrast with descriptions of Crowley’s increasingly withdrawn presence and his young daughter’s telling of gory make-believe stories. If Nelson hadn’t underlined these dichotomies, the film wouldn’t have authentically conveyed how the inherently strange nature of the human mind can spur realities beyond explanation. Mystery and paradox exist within every mind, and thus within factual reality. Many documentaries err on the side of certainty and objectivity, ignoring this truth altogether: A Gray State does not.
Nelson had the foresight to know that feelings of skepticism would feel more reputable coming from Crowley’s former friends, rather than from liberals. In interviews, past alt-right associates call out the Gray State fans as “insane” and built from self-verifying conjecture rather than facts. Yet, the film never strains to a make a conclusive case against Crowley. Instead, perspectives and facts are revealed sequentially and mount atop each other cohesively. Home footage, interviews from close friends and colleagues, and clips from Crowley’s movie all paint the picture with intricacy, directing viewers to a truth hidden somewhere between the black and white polar ends of politics. This truth almost feels like something stranger and more convoluted than reality.
One of A Gray State’s most exceptional scenes is entitled the “endless loop,” which is scored by Crowley’s own intense piano playing, with a metronome ticking unrelentingly as his mental descent to death is revealed in clipped scenes. Nelson employs emotive power by offering us a peek into Crowleys’ neuroticism without over-dramatizing reality. Emphasis on details like the repeating soundtrack Crowley sets to play during the murder-suicides convey psychotic logic without overt judgment or exaggeration. The film successfully transcends the polar opposites of politics involved in the crime and instead tells the story in a factual, flowing and humanizing manner. Every backstory, interview and inclusion of home video drives home a perspective without being too curt or too overextending.
Unfortunately, the documentary’s closing shots of Crowley’s dog running about happily feel random and disjointed, rather than optimistic as perhaps they were intended. It holds a quirky, Herzog-like quality atypical of A Gray State’s characteristic dark mood and leaves viewers puzzled. This undercuts the intensity and final say of an otherwise carefully constructed documentary.
In the Q&A, Nelson admitted that personally, he has never figured out what was going on in Crowley’s mind or what all the causes of the murder were. Herzog agreed and stated that ultimately, Crowley was “terminally lost in the dark labyrinth of the screenplay he was writing…filmmaking could not and should not be done like that.” On the other hand, A Gray State employs necessary distance while revealing the murder-suicide as an inexplicable labyrinth, but one in which the viewers are more than willing to get lost.