In the late 1970s, a 19-year-old Mark DeFriest caught four years in jail for picking up some tools before his father’s will was probated. His stepmother called the police, and Mark made a run for it, landing him in jail. Mark’s tendency to run has kept him there ever since. A compulsive (and talented) escape artist, DeFriest’s constant disciplinary infractions have extended his sentence to nearly 2080. The documentary “The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest,” the result of a 13-year effort by director Gabriel London, documents the horrific odyssey that DeFriest has made through the Florida prison system, a journey with no end in sight.
A sort of American Charles Bronson (the prisoner), DeFriest’s antics have a mythic quality to them, and he is notorious in the prison system for his ballsy jailbreaks and mechanical skill, garnering himself the nickname “Houdini.” The son of a WWII OSS officer, DeFriest grew up in constant training for Commie invasion, and fiddling with mechanics and electronics. He relied on these skills as an inmate, jerry-rigging and MacGyver-ing all manner of crude zip guns and key replicas in his escape efforts. Of course, despite breaking out several times, he was always returned to prison, and often to solitary confinement.
In 1981, DeFriest caught a bad break when a psychologist, Dr. Robert Berland, deemed him competent to stand trial, and DeFriest, unaware and unschooled in legal issues, took a 20 year plea deal on his infractions. The film starts with Berland and DeFriest’s reunion, as the psychologist has been asked by DeFriest’s lawyer, John Middleton, to reexamine the prisoner and possibly change his assessment. When DeFriest is on screen, it’s clear that he’s smart, astute, funny (he has a legitimately great joke when he announces to Berland “I killed Lincoln!”), but that there’s something off with him. Whether it’s a childhood brain injury, trauma from the vicious prison beatings at the hands of guards and other prisoners, or some other form of psychosis, in his second assessment, Dr. Berland finds DeFriest to be decidedly psychotic. Whether or not that will have an affect on if he gets out is up to the Florida parole board.
The film starts out as a sort of rollicking Wild West tale of one of America’s most unique prisoners, though it quickly descends into a haunting indictment of the American, specifically Floridian, prison system. London first heard of DeFriest when he was housed in Florida State Prison’s notorious X-wing, where the baddest, most violent prisoners were kept, right down the hall from Death Row and the execution chambers. DeFriest was the only non-violent prisoner kept there, and he himself keenly observes that the the guards had it out for him because he had made them look bad with all of his escaping and acting up. A former Florida State warden describes the horrific “goon squads” of guards who beat prisoners within an inch of their lives, even murdering inmate Frank Valdes (DeFriest’s letter describing what he heard of the attack made it into official evidence against the guards).
London utilizes animation from Thought Café to illustrate DeFriest’s wild tales, and Scoot McNairy provides the voice-over performance of DeFriest’s testimony and letters (based on his voice performance alone, McNairy would be a perfect DeFriest if this ever makes it to narrative feature film adaptation, which it is ripe for). This animation provides a hallucinatory visual experience, a window into some of the horrors that DeFriest has witnessed or been a victim of in his many years in prison.
The film is simply a devastating record of this man’s life, and it will stick with you long after it is over. One of the most profound moments comes when DeFriest and Berland are reunited and Berland asks him at the end of the test if he has any other questions. You can see the bewilderment cross DeFriest’s face after being on the wrong end of 20 years in hardcore prison, suffering beatings and rape and torture in solitary confinement. This is the man whose report led to this life for him, and of course you can see DeFriest might want to ask him “why” or “how could you do this to me?” But this is just the story of these two men, lives inextricably intertwined, trying to seek redemption.
“The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest” is a powerful depiction of what prison has been like on the inside, and how it continues to be, for Mark DeFriest and for many, many other prisoners. There’s simply no way to come out of this film feeling that justice exists in any way in this man’s life. It’s a curious, infuriating and haunting tale, and an accomplishment of documentary filmmaking. [A-]