×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest’

A bizarre story gets an absorbing telling in Gabriel London's documentary.

With:
Mark DeFriest, Ron McAndrew, John Middleton, Bonnie DeFriest, Barbie Taylor, Robert Berland. (Voices: Scoot McNairy, Shea Whigham.)

The crimes committed by Mark DeFriest have kept him behind bars since 1979, most of that time spent in solitary confinement. Yet it’s highly questionable that he poses any serious danger to society, and none of his individual misdeeds is of a type that ordinarily rates significant hard time. Indeed, the real problem seems to be that he’s simply been too ingenious at escaping, improvising contraband and embarrassing prison officials, all while possibly suffering from undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. It’s a bizarre story not entirely clear in the telling — partly because we can’t be entirely sure when the subject is telling the truth — but absorbing nonetheless. With careful handling, Gabriel London’s documentary could break out of the festival circuit into limited theatrical release, picking up some traction for broadcast and download sales.

Sometimes dubbed “the Houdini of Florida” — among, no doubt, many worse things — DeFriest was a newly married 19-year-old with a somewhat rocky upbringing when he first entered that state’s Apalachee Prison. His crime was a dubious one, according to many: A mechanical whiz like his beloved father, he’d inherited the latter’s tools, taking them without waiting for the recently deceased parent’s will to be probated. His stepmother called the police, and by the time the goods were deemed legally his, he’d already gotten a four-year sentence for theft complicated by felony firearms possession and fleeing arrest.

A month after incarceration, he escaped, hot-wired a friend’s car, and was caught again. Thus was established a pattern of subversive actions — abetted by not just DeFriest’s Mr. Fix-It talents, but also the survival tactics his ex-Marine dad taught him — which enraged officials and kept extending his prison term to near-infinity over coming decades.

Among his stunts were putting LSD (how did that get into the prison pharmacy, anyway?) in a staff coffee pot, and creating zipguns from hospital arts-and-crafts materials. “Nobody’s got a sense of humor … they can’t take a joke,” he shrugs in retrospect. Indeed, the authorities weren’t laughing. And DeFriest laid himself open to some pretty horrendous experiences as a result, purportedly including being tortured by guards (with mace, fire hoses, etc.), being gang-raped by inmates, and spending 27 of his 34 years to date behind bars in solitary. It’s rather shocking, then, that in London’s jailhouse interview footage, he appears healthy, relaxed and fairly upbeat.

That itself may be an aspect of his mental illness, according to the very same psychiatric expert, Robert Berland, who once testified that DeFriest was only faking signs of psychological damage. Now Berland thinks that assessment was inaccurate, and believes Mark may be “genuinely psychotic,” perhaps as a result of Shaken Baby Syndrome. That might partly explain his seemingly congenital inability to obey or even humor authority, as well as numerous actions any saner personality with his high intelligence would realize could only lengthen and worsen his life behind bars.

Other interviewees include his first wife, his older-looking current one (whom he met online), his lawyer and a former warden. Of course the most dramatic chapters of this story couldn’t be filmed, so London has them illustrated by Thought Cafe animation studio in a simple, effective graphic-novel style that lends considerable color, while also suggesting a delusional narcissism that might be one way the tricky, restless “mind of Mark DeFriest” works.

Plenty of questions remain, some because the film takes its protagonist’s side as a victim and downplays his keepers’ legitimate gripes. (Closing onscreen stats about various widespread injustices in the U.S. prison feel a bit irrelevant here, as the subject’s case is so exceptional and eccentric.) While at present things don’t look good, it’s just possible DeFriest may one day be paroled. In that case, a follow-up docu relating his further adventures and clarifying details about his past would be welcome.

Tech aspects are polished.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, April 21, 2014. (In Hot Docs Film Festival — International Spectrum.) Running time: 100 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Found Objects and Naked Edge Films presentation in association with Mighty Pictures and Thoughtmakers. Produced by Daniel J. Chalfen, Gabriel London, Charlie Sadoff. Executive producers, Peter Brusikiewicz, Jim Butterworth, David Menschel.

Crew:

Directed by Gabriel London. Camera (color, HD), Eric Koretz, William Charles Moss, Andreas Wagner; editor, Nick Clark; music, Ronan Coleman; music supervisors, Joseph Rudge, Kyle McKeveny; animation, Jonathon Corbiere, Thought Cafe; sound recordist, Susan Bryant; re-recording mixer/sound designer, Eli Cohn.

With: Mark DeFriest, Ron McAndrew, John Middleton, Bonnie DeFriest, Barbie Taylor, Robert Berland. (Voices: Scoot McNairy, Shea Whigham.)

More Film

  • Jason Lei Howden, Samara Weaving and

    Daniel Radcliffe On Acting With Weapons Nailed To Your Hands

    How did “Guns Akimbo” director and writer Jason Lei Howden convince Daniel Radcliffe to play a character with guns nailed to his hands? Easy, he sent him the script. Radcliffe joined Howden and “Ready or Not’s” breakout star Samara Weaving in the Variety’s Toronto Film Festival studio, presented by AT&T to talk the limits of [...]

  • Box Office: It Chapter Two Maintains

    Box Office: 'It: Chapter Two' Continues International Reign With $47 Million

    Pennywise’s reign of terror hasn’t wavered: Warner Bros.’ “It Chapter Two” maintained first place on box office charts, led by another strong showing overseas. The sequel, based on Stephen King’s horror novel, generated another $47 million at the international box office for a foreign tally of $169 million. After two weeks of release, “It Chapter [...]

  • First still from the set of

    Taika Waititi’s 'Jojo Rabbit' Wins Top Prize at Toronto Film Festival Awards

    Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” has won the coveted People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The honor positions the film for a potential Oscar run and bolsters its awards chances. That’s good news for Fox Searchlight, which must have been disappointed by the lackluster critical reception for the movie, a dark comedy [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Box Office: 'Hustlers' Racks Up Solid $33 Million Debut, 'Goldfinch' Bombs

    “Hustlers” rolled in the Benjamins this weekend, collecting $33.2 million when it debuted in 3,250 North American theaters. Boosted by rave reviews and stellar word of mouth, “Hustlers” beat expectations and now ranks as the best start for an STX film, along with the biggest live-action opening weekend for stars Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. [...]

  • German Cinema Is Diverse, But Is

    German Cinema Is Varied, But Is It Too Risk Averse?

    One of the strengths of German cinema is its diversity, says Simone Baumann, managing director of the national film promotion agency German Films. As well as the three films at Toronto directed by female German helmers, there was also German filmmaker Thomas Heise’s documentary film essay “Heimat Is a Space in Time.” Then there were [...]

  • Female Filmmakers in Germany Make Progress

    Female Filmmakers Surge Forward in Germany, But Still Face Obstacles

    Four feature films by German filmmakers screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and three of them were directed by women – Angela Schanelec’s “I Was at Home, But…,” winner of the Berlinale’s best director prize, Ina Weisse’s “The Audition,” and Katrin Gebbe’s “Pelican Blood,” the latter two both starring Nina Hoss. Germany’s Oscar entry this [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content