The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest


Making a run for it.

Making a run for it.

(2014) Documentary (Naked Edge/City Light) Mark DeFriest, Scoot McNairy (voice), Shea Whigham (voice), John Middleton, Robert Berland, Bonnie DeFriest, Brenda C., Gabriel London. Directed by Gabriel London

The great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote that a society can be judged by how it treats its prisoners. Here in this country, I think it is fairly evident that our prison system is in need of drastic reform.

Case in point, Mark DeFriest. He was a 19-year-old kid when his father passed away, promising him that he could have his tools. Mark went ahead and took them. The problem was that the estate was still in probate; technically he didn’t own the tools yet. His stepmother called the cops, Mark panicked and ran. He was given four years for taking tools which had been promised him too early. It kind of seems to me that he could have gotten off without doing prison time, but far be it for me to second guess the wonderful Florida justice system.

DeFriest has a real issue with authority; he doesn’t do well when told what to do, where to be, how to live. Prison is definitely not the kind of place a person like that wants to be in. So, DeFriest made a break for it. He managed to actually get away too, for several days before being caught. Of course, time was added to his sentence for that little adventure. In fact, there were thirteen little adventures in all (to date). He successfully escaped in about half of them. The media took to calling him “Houdini.”

His lawyer, John Middleton, suspected that Mark had some sort of mental illness. He told horror stories of being gang raped and of horrible beatings, most of which could be corroborated by medical personnel. But there were also other things. DeFriest is a very smart guy, able to create keys that actually worked out of paper, and created zip guns from material commonly available around the prison. He also made impressive drawings and artwork from inside his cell, using the inside foil of potato chip bags. However, there was also extreme paranoia and what Middleton thought might be some psychosis.

The courts agreed to have Mark undergo competency testing. Four of the six psychologists agreed that Mark wasn’t mentally competent enough by the definition accepted by the Florida Department of Corrections. Two, however, believed he was; one of them was Robert Berland who had the most contact with him at Florida State Hospital’s Forensic Wing. It was his recommendation that the parole board accepted.

In the meantime Mark grew darker and more driven by despair. His marriage crumbled. A new one began, with Bonnie whom he met through correspondence. Bonnie has been a rock for DeFriest as his lawyer continued to advocate for his release as the years piled up and Mark’s misbehavior and Disciplinary Referrals (DRs as they are referred to) piled up as well. His parole date was extended, extended and extended some more. It soon reached 2085 having been sentenced to four years in 1980.

Dr. Berland would have a change of heart; initially believing that Mark was faking his symptoms, he eventually came to realize that DeFriest’s difficulties were genuine. He has become one of the stauncher advocates for the release of the prisoner and has since diagnosed him as bipolar with paranoid delusions, all of which can be treated with medication.

DeFriest’s story is a nightmare made flesh. His anti-authoritarian nature is not exactly tailor-made for imprisonment. Minor infractions ranging from possession of contraband to misuse of phone privileges piled up, continuing to add to his sentence. In his 34 year incarceration, 27 of them were spent in solitary confinement in the notorious “X Wing” of Florida State Penitentiary  where he was the only non-violent offender.

The film primarily focuses on the fight of his lawyer, his wife and Dr. Berland to have the ridiculous sentence pared down and get Mark declared mentally incompetent. London uses some pretty impressive animated sequences to illustrate some of the events that occurred in DeFriest’s long incarceration; London cites Waltz With Bashir as an inspiration and in fact the animation resembles that film stylistically.

DeFriest himself is a pretty compelling character; he is a natural-born storyteller and has a pretty good sense of humor which I would imagine you would have to have in order to survive what he has survived. Judging from the horrible beatings he took (the results of which are sometimes displayed photographically) it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t at least some brain trauma that may have contributed to what might have already been there from the beginning.

One of the things this movie is most successful at and what makes it so compelling is that it raises, at least in my mind, what the penal system is for. Does it exist to rehabilitate those who have broken society’s laws and help them emerge better citizens, or is it there to punish those who have transgressed? While surely there is an element of punishment involved, is that all we want it to be? A way to warehouse those who don’t play well with others?

The movie is a little less successful in some of its storytelling elements; I never got a clear picture as to what prompted Dr. Berland’s reversal of opinion which has been crucial in the defense’s argument to get Mark out of prison and into psychiatric care. However, the issues I had were of a fairly minor nature other than the one I just mentioned; most should find the story easily followed.

Our country currently has the highest percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any non-dictatorship on Earth. That’s not a statistic we want to be number one in. Imprisoning our criminals has become a lucrative business for privatized prisons (although DeFriest isn’t in one of those) which compounds the issues we have. Prison rape is a real problem as is prison violence. When you put men already prone to lawbreaking in a closed system and don’t give them much to occupy their time, violence becomes inevitable. It’s a self-defeating circle.

This isn’t an indictment of any individual. Even the parole board is essentially doing their job given the information they’re receiving. This is an indictment of the system. Mark DeFriest is no angel, but he remains incarcerated today as of this writing. Justice has been denied him and in many ways, he’s a victim of his own mental illness.

London’s restraint in telling the story is admirable; while he clearly understands that this is a system that needs to be fixed, he doesn’t affix the blame on anyone in particular. He’s just calling for changes to be made that benefit not only the prisoners but society at large. How we treat our prisoners, going back to Dostoyevsky, is a reflection of a society’s values. How our society at this time in history will be judged will largely be reflected in that. Perhaps if we start as a society injecting more compassion into our penal systems we will actually start turning out rehabilitated felons rather than men who come out even more dangerous and disillusioned than when they went in.

While the theatrical run for this film has essentially ended although you can go to the movie’s website and contact the filmmakers for one-off screenings or theatrical runs if you own a theater, the film will be airing on the Showtime premium cable channel in the United States starting tomorrow. While there’s no word when this will be available for streaming on iTunes or Amazon or on DVD, this is a documentary worth seeking out particularly if you are interested in issues relating to justice. Certainly it’s an early contender for my 2015 Top Ten list.

REASONS TO GO: A gripping story that invites the viewer to rethink their views on the modern prison system. DeFriest an engaging character. Very much a legal thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit vague on Berland’s change of mind.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly rough language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeFriest wrote a letter to his wife describing the murder of Florida State Penitentiary inmate Frank Valdes; it was eventually used as evidence against the prison guards who were accused (and later acquitted) of the crime. Because they were acquitted, DeFriest was moved to an out-of-state penitentiary for his own safety.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: West Memphis Three
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Red Army

Big Stan


Big Stan

The authorities catch up to Rob Schneider after the last Deuce Bigalow movie.

(2007) Comedy (Crystal Sky) Rob Schneider, David Carradine, Jennifer Morrison, Scott Wilson, Richard Kind, Sally Kirkland, M. Emmett Walsh, Henry Gibson, Jackson Rathbone, Kevin Gage, Bob Sapp, Brandon Jackson, Dan Haggerty, Richard Riehle, Marcia Wallace, Randy Couture. Directed by Rob Schneider

 

Fear can be an awfully effective motivator. When something makes us quake in our boots, it’s amazing the things we can do to protect ourselves or at the very least, keep our worst fears from coming true.

Big Stan (Schneider) is a real estate salesman whose real job is to swindle the elderly out of their hard earned dollars to buy timeshares in undesirable neighborhoods and make a killing by convincing them to pay luxury accommodation prices. He gets caught eventually and convicted although his conniving lawyer (Walsh) convinces the judge (Riehle) to give Stan six months to settle up his affairs before heading off to jail.

Stan is not the biggest rooster in the henhouse, although he has a gorgeous wife (Morrison) whom he’s crazy about. However, what he’s even crazier about is the thought that he’s going to be raped repeatedly in prison; he’s paranoid about it like Nixon. He finds himself a martial arts teacher who calls himself The Master (Carradine) who agrees to teach him how to defend himself. His methods are, to say the least, unusual. Even so, Stan manages to become an adept martial artist, so much so that the Master labels him his number two disciple.

Eventually Stan is sent to prison where he encounters some of the meanest, roughest prisoners you’ll ever meet – and Stan kicks all of their asses. He becomes the prison’s number one badass and the warden (Wilson), knowing about Stan’s real estate expertise, seeks out his help in a scheme to raze the prison and turn the site into luxury condos. Stan and the prisoners get together to expose the warden’s nefarious plan but can they stand together? Or will Stan, targeted by the Master’s number one student, fall alone?

Schneider’s film career has been checkered to say the least. His Deuce Bigalow films have made Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura films look positively highbrow by comparison. Schneider himself however has always been a likable presence even in the movies with the least amount of appeal. I was fortunate enough to interview him years ago (just after he left SNL) and found him to be a really nice guy and one of the most fun interviews I’ve ever done. I know there are a lot of people who don’t like his persona, but I’m not one of them.

This is a bit of a departure for Schneider in that there are martial arts sequences and action, something he hasn’t done in most of his studio films except for comic effect. The action sequences here – considering that Schneider hasn’t directed such things before and he has to direct himself in them – are surprisingly well done, and Schneider (who does his own stunt work) is a very competent martial artist. I was mildly surprised to say the least.

Now the movie is almost like two movies – the first part when the Master trains Stan is one movie with one tone and the second part set in the prison another movie with a different tone. I’m not sure which movie I liked better – the first part had the most funny portions of the film (and there aren’t many) but I liked the action portions in the second, so I’d give it to the second by a hair if pressed. The tonal shift however is a bit disconcerting to the casual viewer.

I wish the script had been funnier but there is a sweetness factor that gives it some points. There is far too much reliance on prison rape and the fear of it as a comedy point and it gets driven home a little too much. We get it. Prison rape is bad. Stan doesn’t want to get raped in prison. His butt is sacred. No need to nag.

The movie never got a theatrical release despite being on the schedule for five different dates. The distributors ultimately thought the movie would be unprofitable in any sort of limited release (although it did surprisingly well overseas) and wound up being sold to another distributor who immediately put it on direct-to-video. I’m not going to lie and tell you that this is the second coming of Gone With the Wind but it’s better than a lot of releases that make it onto the schedule. You could do a lot worse than renting this.

WHY RENT THIS: Despite everything Schneider is kind of lovable despite himself. He acquits himself nicely doing his own martial arts sequences. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not particularly funny and there’s a little too much emphasis on prison rape.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is crude and sexual in places. The language is pretty rough throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The prison scenes were shot in a closed women’s prison in Stockton. During filming there Schneider collapsed from heat exhaustion and food poisoning  when temperatures soared during the summer shoot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.7M on an unreported production budget; it’s likely that the movie broke even at least or made a modest profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Longest Yard

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Chop Shop