David Crowley was a natural director. A soldier who became a filmmaker after his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the handsome Minnesota native could marshal extras around a set with the persuasive authority of a captain leading his troops into battle. Only in his twenties, Crowley seemed possessed with a visionary sense of purpose; practically the Werner Herzog of suburbia, he had a look in his eyes that made it clear he would finish his first feature or die trying. Tragically, he wouldn’t die alone.
“A Gray State” is not an uplifting documentary. It doesn’t exhume Crowley’s abbreviated life story for lessons, nor constructively target the toxic people who might have encouraged him towards his ultimate fate. On the contrary, it’s an unflinching cinematic autopsy of a guy whose life was unexamined until his death became a conspiracy — it’s a morbidly fascinating portrait of a sick man in a sick world. What’s lost in the narrowness of its scope is gained in the honesty with which it sees its subject.
Directed by the prolific Erik Nelson (a doc veteran who’s produced a number of Herzog’s recent films, and for whom Herzog has now returned the favor), “A Gray State” is immediately shaded with the ominousness that Crowley was able to keep hidden from his friends and family. The first thing we hear is his manic, rambling voice as he feverishly rehearses for a pitch meeting. It’s never a bad idea to prep for that sort of thing, but there’s something very off about Crowley’s approach — there’s a religious fervor to his words, which sound less like those of a salesman than of a subway preacher.
And then there’s the idea he’s pitching: A dystopian action movie about the new world order, set in a near-future America where society has collapsed and a shadow government has instated authoritarian rule. Crowley made three trailers for the film in a bid to attract Hollywood investors, and, in hindsight, the rabid fanbase of conspiracy theorists he earned with the footage should have been a red flag. But there’s a fine line between passion and madness, and Crowley’s natural charisma made it easy to see him as more of a Peter Berg than a Timothy Treadwell. It’s also worth noting that all of this went down a few years ago, before “Pizzagate,” before a JFK-like mythos formed around John Podesta’s emails, and before we had a President who thinks of Infowars as a legitimate news source (Alex Jones is a frequent and troubling presence here). Besides, Crowley probably lacked the hate in his heart that Trumpism requires; he was a Ron Paul libertarian, a paranoid defender of personal liberties who was too disillusioned by his experience overseas to support any sort of political movement.
When Nelson first informs us of what happened to Crowley, it’s easy to understand how the internet’s new class of “citizen journalists” suspected foul play. In fact, it’s tempting to see things from their point of view. Even in these dark times, it’s hard to accept that someone is capable of murdering his wife and their four-year-old daughter before scrawling “allahu akbar” on the wall in blood and then killing himself. It’s an unimaginable crime, impossible to reconcile with the charming Midwesterner who loves Muse and wrote his wife an entire album of love songs from his tent in Afghanistan. Indeed, Nelson’s film is filled with Crowley’s friends and family, all of whom are struggling to reconcile the man they know with the killer they buried.
“A Gray State” is only nominally interested in the particulars of the police state that Crowley feared, and regretfully even less engaged with relevant questions about mental illness and PTSD (even though Crowley admitted to experiencing a nervous break when he was stop-lossed back to war for 15 months), but the documentary effectively disabuses us of the idea that tragedies have to obey some kind of logic. Nelson doesn’t entertain the notion that anyone else could have killed Crowley and his family, and he doesn’t hedge his argument that “looking for answers” is just a defense mechanism intended to help us deny the truth.
Interweaving oodles of home video that Crowley shot of himself — and using the Mentaculus–like story wall that Crowley created to help keep track of the plot — Nelson artfully repositions his subject as a figure in the mold of a Yukio Mishima, as a man whose life (and death) was his ultimate act of self-expression. Every new detail is more disturbing than the last, from the spiritual symbiosis that Crowley and his wife developed as they withdrew from their friends (illustrated by private footage that’s so steeped in the occult it could be a deleted scene from “Paranormal Activity”), to the fact that Crowley made a 53-song playlist that piped into his house on a loop for four days before a neighbor found the bodies on the carpet. Clear enough about what happened to be ambiguous about what it means, the film makes only one clean argument: Truth isn’t always stranger than fiction, but it’s often a hell of a lot sadder.
“A Gray State” opens in New York on Friday, November 3, and in Los Angeles on Friday, November 24.