When the title subject of Gabriel London’s “The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest” is ushered into view in the opening moments of the film, the lifelong inmate is sporting sunglasses, aloof in the face of his impending questioning. After sitting down in a chair and the receiving the first round of on-camera questions, the transition lenses inside his glasses turn clear, revealing the eyes of a man who, even more than the typical enigmatic criminal, defies a simple characterization. Yet, within the annals of the American penitentiary system, DeFriest’s reputation has been solidified exponentially faster than an alternate one could emerge. Such is the challenge for both London and his subjects: to reconstruct a narrative already cemented by an entire institution.
Mark DeFriest is infamous in an environment while notoriety quickly becomes a giant bullseye at the very least and a death knell at its worst. After living out most of his teenage years and a young marriage in Florida, the death of his father quickly led to a property dispute with his stepmother that resulted in DeFriest being arrested in July of 1980 and charged with theft. Quickly the subject of disciplinary action after multiple attempted escapes and a presumed attack on a prison guard, DeFriest is deemed mentally stable and strongly encouraged to plead to a life sentence. What began as a four-year term has become a lifetime of crisscrossing American prisons as each situation proves more restrictive than the next.
The fact that DeFriest gained a reputation for being a notoriously difficult inmate to keep incarcerated might lead some to believe he’d have some of the characteristics of a prototypical Hollywood escape artist: somehow both gruff and suave, charming enough to make you forget and forgive the circumstances that put him behind bars in the first place. The present-day DeFriest has very few of those qualities. He is not particularly eloquent, managing as much frustration as he can muster after being burnt out by an entire adulthood of delayed freedom.
A handful of illustrated vignettes add to the visual language of recounting DeFriest’s various travails behind bars. These segments, directed by Jonathon Corbiere and his animation studio Thought Café, have the look and feel of a graphic novel brought to life. But instead of creating a folk hero or antihero, archetypes that style is often used to bolster, these illustrations serve more as an environment creator than a shortcut to empathy. In terms of fulfilling the promise of the film’s title, these animated segments (featuring the voiceover contributions of actors Scoot McNairy and Shea Whigham) do more to illuminate DeFriest’s “mind” rather than providing a more comprehensive version of the events from his decades-long saga.
When the movie’s soundtrack switches from Ronan Coleman’s moody, effective score to popular music, the selections are a mixed bunch. The frenzied passion of DeFriest’s favorite radio tunes (captured beautifully by speedy editing tricks and McNairy’s layered, haunting retelling of DeFriest’s writing) crystallizes the essence of what makes his behavior so erratic, all the while providing a potential point of entry for the day-to-day circumstances that may have aggravated his already-fragile condition. One animated escape recreation gets some mileage out of winkingly using Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison version of “Cocaine Blues.” But the last thing the film world needs is another story, however fascinating, backed by Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”
As DeFriest’s instability makes him an increasingly hard central character to pin down, the film stumbles on a fascinating tale of penance that moves one player in his saga from the periphery to the forefront: Dr. Robert Berland, his former psychiatric evaluator whose diagnosis may have been instrumental in generating DeFriest’s life sentence plea, becomes a resource for our understanding of Mark’s mental state. Berland’s involvement doesn’t hijack the narrative, but it does ground the film when DeFriest’s tales of paranoia and frustration begin to fold in on themselves. Likewise, the involvement of DeFriest’s wife Bonnie (who met Mark through correspondence after he had already been in jail for a decade and a half) has as much of a calming influence on the film as her quiet demeanor brings to her husband’s situation.
As the slim hope for a reduction in DeFriest’s parole becomes a possibility, the work of Berland, Bonnie and DeFriest’s longtime attorney John Middleton become the main narrative push. London gets a far greater emotional payoff out of tracking the activism on DeFriest’s behalf than having the film become the driving force behind it. Through documenting the work being done by the doctors and lawyers to champion the lessening of DeFriest’s sentence, it posits a lack of institutional empathy from the opposing side of the system without becoming a simple screed that ignores its characters for the sake of making a statement. As the evidence against DeFriest, generated by the systematic pitfalls of the prison system grows insurmountable, the drama involves not whether Mark will be freed by the end of this decade, but if his case study will affect any noticeable change in how mental illness is handled in the American judicial system.
The timeline of DeFriest’s incarceration seems to be one of the only parts of his story that follows a recognizable, graspable trajectory, so the decision to fracture that timeline and scatter it throughout the film’s running time is a curious one. But when the film does make a circuitous path back to the DeFriest we see in the opening, we see a man who — even if he was granted freedom — would experience a life outside the walls of a maximum security as difficult to reshape as the reputation that’s kept him inside them.
“The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest” never explicitly decides whether the key factor that led him to his current situation happened before or after his incarceration. But it does show that there are perhaps better ways for the system that controls his fate to examine the point where discussions about mental health and criminal justice meet.