The Mind of Mark DeFriest is a documentary about two things: how sadly pathetic our justice system can be at times, and about how many holes a man can dig for himself. Filmmaker Gabriel London’s passion project about Mark DeFriest, a man originally jailed for what may not have been a crime in the first place, comes to screens today with both guns blazing, almost Natural Born Killers-like in its quest to hammer its points home and to make sure they stick.
I’m not a “true crime” kind of guy – the notoriety of criminals of all shapes and sizes never was something which interested me. Sure, I’d read about Al Capone and heard about the Son of Sam, the Zodiac Killer, Bundy, Dahmer – if you were tuned to the television news in the 1980s, how could you not hear about those latter two? The Mind of Mark DeFriest centers on the man they call the “Prison Houdini,” a man who’s engineered several successful escapes from various prisons and mental hospitals. I remember his name from my childhood, and I remember not knowing exactly why he was in jail in the first place.
Using voiceovers from letters and court transcriptions, computer-animated reenactments, interviews from both sides of the fence, and a healthy dose of Mark DeFriest himself, London wastes no time immersing us in the minutiae of DeFriest’s case, which stemmed from his misunderstanding about the probate period of his late father’s will. As DeFriest and his father liked to work on mechanical things together, his father had willed his tools to him, yet the probate period hadn’t ended before DeFriest took them. This resulted in his stepmother calling the police, and due to the presence of firearms, DeFriest’s attempt to flee the scene, and one psychiatrist’s recommendation that he was competent to stand trial (even though four others said he wasn’t), he was sentenced to four years in prison in 1980.
A seemingly innocuous misunderstanding has led to DeFriest still being behind bars to the present day. Why? Because of his repeated escape attempts and disciplinary problems while in jail. At one point, he’d received so many disciplinary reports for minor offenses that his sentence was extended by at least 70 years. London shows us the tools of DeFriest’s escapes and animated depictions of what they may have looked like, with corresponding voiceover descriptions of the escapes by the man himself.
His near-35 years in prison haven’t been a cakewalk; he went in a young, blond-haired, blue-eyed young man, and from watching various TV shows and movies about prison, you can guess what happened to him once inside. However, throughout the years, there were more instances of abuse, most notably from what a former Florida State Prison warden describes as a “Goon Squad.” There’s talk of rape, becoming a prison bitch, and all manner of things DeFriest has to do to survive… including escaping.
The film presents itself as very pro-Mark DeFriest, with very few dissenting voices among those in support of him; it almost glorifies what he’s done and makes him a bit of a lovable renegade. Yet, when faced with the facts that are brought to light in this documentary, there’s not much you can do but kind of root for the guy. London’s interview choices – DeFriest’s wife, his lawyer, his stepsister, the aforementioned ex-warden, and the psychiatrist that ruled him competent to stand trial (which pretty much cemented his incarceration) – all serve to get us on his side, hoping against hope that the justice system will finally correct what started out as a misunderstanding.
However, London also takes care to help us realize that DeFriest could have avoided all of this by simply serving out his sentence and walking away from it. The specter of mental illness hangs over every decision and every story that DeFriest tells us; at one point, he’s talking about aliens abducting him and taking him to solitary confinement. Is the notion of “aliens” his idea of what the prison guards are, or does he really believe he’s been abducted by aliens? DeFriest’s loquacious nature combined with his odd sense of humor is on full display here, but one has a hard time knowing whether it’s the prison-hardened person that’s talking, or if it’s the honest DeFriest in the camera lens.
I’m loath to call this documentary “fun,” yet there’s an oddly comic bent to the proceedings. It’s almost as if London wants us to laugh at the seemingly impossible escapes, DeFriest’s humorous descriptions of them, and the cryptic bon mots that emanate from DeFriest’s mouth. What looms larger, though, is the abuse and near-torturous circumstances DeFriest has met at the hands of his jailers and those jailed with him. Does DeFriest’s behavior really merit the lengthy sentence imposed upon him? After watching The Mind of Mark DeFriest, you may think differently, and that’s a telltale sign of a worthwhile documentary.
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