A Gray State (2017)
It’s easy to ridicule conspiracy theorists, especially when their figureheads are people like Alex Jones, a guy who’s denied the whole Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the current sitting President of the United States. Forgetting that there are actual human beings behind 9/11 truthers or moon landing deniers is a mistake that many of us often make, and it’s one that A Gray State, whether intentionally or not, attempts to rectify.
What begins as a conspiracy theorist’s filmmaking journey quickly descends into truly dark territory, as Erik Nelson’s documentary tracks the all too bizarre and horrific story of David Crowley. Crowley was a screenwriter and director who had the ambition of bringing his feature film, Gray State, to the big screen. The film was meant to outline a dystopian future that, for Crowley, was right around the corner. However, on Christmas of 2014, it is believed that Crowley killed his wife Komel and their daughter Raniya before taking his own life. At the scene of the crime the words ‘Allahu Akbar’ were smeared on the wall of the family home in Komel’s blood and a Koran was found between the bodies opened to a passage on forgiveness.
As the movie began, I found myself thinking about the different types of films Nelson could have made: one on the ever growing world of conspiracy theories and history denialism, and the other on the possible murder mystery of the Crowleys. Both would have been satisfactory, and there’s enough solid material to have gone down either path. Nelson, however, chooses neither, and instead opts to put a human face onto tragedy.
Through the use of behind the scenes footage — taken whilst Crowley was in the midst of shooting his concept trailer for Gray State — Nelson tracks Crowley’s journey from former Iraq/ Afghan war veteran to loving father and husband, never really placing judgment on any of Crowley’s otherwise insane beliefs. Again, there’s an innate simplicity in going after what people of Crowley’s ilk believe, but here, the viewer will find themselves conflicted. Do we have sympathy for a former soldier now family man who’s attempting to realize his dreams? Or do we revile a man who reveled in dangerous nonsense that may or may not have hastened his descent towards a gruesome act?
Nelson’s film isn’t intended to be divisive. But what makes it so is the current political climate. In any other time, away from such an ideologically divided environment, there wouldn’t be any need for the viewer to be seeking answers when the film’s credits roll. However, this being 2017, A Gray State is almost at a disadvantage given how politically combative we’ve all become. Nelson doesn’t really seek to solve anything from the portrait that’s painted of Crowley, but rather illuminate his subject through a warts-and-all piece.
Given how shocking the murder was, the film is not without moments that are truly unnerving. Audio and video recordings highlight Crowley and Komel’s joint descent into insanity, as well as Crowley’s detachment from society — there’s an especially chilling scene in which Crowley’s daughter Raniya has an almost prophetic moment that actually made me look over my shoulder. All of these instances are filtered through Crowley’s friends and family who are, two years on, still attempting to rationalize what happened to their former friend-brother-son. Adoration turns to horror which turns to pity as each interviewee is forced to reckon with the notion of ‘If only I – – – .’
Ultimately, A Gray State is at its best when it attempts to focus on the heart of the person sitting in the center of an ideological maelstrom. And while filmmaker Neslon refuses to paint Crowley with anything but his own words and actions, given the state we’re living in, he inadvertently leaves that door wide open for the audience, free for us to judge as we see fit.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Carlo Peritore