A Gray State


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

A Gray State
"Simply observed, the story tells itself; the viewer is left to consider how reasonable each argument sounds, and to consider the way that the different arguments developed."

In the US there are approximately 23 cases a year in which individuals (almost always male) kill their intimate partners and children before killing themselves. When the bodies of David Crowley, his wife Komel and their five-year-old daughter Raniya were found at their home in Apple Valley, Minnesota in 2015, that was the obvious explanation. But there were oddities about the case, and there were oddities about David. The conspiracy theories began to develop almost immediately. Erik Nelson's documentary looks at how this happened and suggests that sometimes we miss what's right in front of us.

Much of the story here is narrated by David himself. He was a keen amateur filmmaker who hoped to turn professional and made extensive recordings of his personal and professional lives. Like many a young artist, he wasn't making money - it was Komel who supported the family - but he was making an impression on the world, having amassed quite a following on social media. A passionate libertarian vaunted by many in the alt-right, he was crowdfunding to try to make a feature film called Gray State, which would be set in a future dystopia where interfering government had compromised individual Americans' liberties to the point of inspiring an armed uprising. Convincing supporters and family members alike that this was the way the world was really going, he presented the film as a vital warning message. Inevitably, this led to the belief that secret forces, probably working for the government, had killed him to silence him.

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David's own recordings are intercut with interviews with his friends. Largely coming across as likeable, if a little naive, they are unlikely to fit most people's expectations of those who share such beliefs. In footage from the making of the trailer for the film, we see them working together, see their camaraderie and passion for what they're doing. Many talk of how inspiring David was, how much he loved his little girl, who gets few starring moments of her own in front of the camera. She's a confident, happy child, whether teasing her daddy or making unlikely political statements. David talks in front of her about how, sooner or later, soldiers will come to take people away.

There's one person missing from all of this. Komal appears in the films but rarely speaks. The few women who do speak of her devotion to her husband. Despite growing up Muslim, she converted to Christianity for him (an Islamic slogan was found scrawled on the wall in her blood - curiously, in Latinate letters). Despite being a strong-willed, assertive woman she seemed happy to submit to his every instruction, to be his devoted helpmate. Did something go wrong between them?

David plotted out the story of his film on a wall. He was very alert to the conventional structures of storytelling, citing Joseph Campbell, dazzling his followers with post-it notes and arrows. He understood propaganda, yet didn't seem able to envision his own life without self-mythologising, without some of those ideas bleeding over into it.

There is no sense of judgement from Nelson here. Simply observed, the story tells itself; the viewer is left to consider how reasonable each argument sounds, and to consider the way that the different arguments developed. Just as we can see the attraction of the community at work on David's film, it's easy to see how, presented piece by piece and requiring only small leaps of logic, some of those arguments could appear much more persuasive that they do when presented whole and in context. The very goodwill that many of the contributors feel for the deceased may be skewing their perception.

One member of the Crowley family survived the attack: Paleo, their dog. Loyal to a fault, she destroyed the crime scene whilst trapped in the house, massively complicating any forensic work, ensuring that her master's story would go on. Captured on film, she seems to love the camera. A Gray State is a multi-layered essay on how we tell stories, what we watch, and what we fail to see.

Reviewed on: 01 Nov 2017
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Documentary investigating what happens when an ideology becomes an obsession.

Director: Erik Nelson

Year: 2017

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: US


Tribeca 2017

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