For Thee We’ll Live, For Thee We’ll Die, by Craig Schroeder
I’ve only ever known Florida, my birthplace and home, as a breeding ground for microcosmic examples of the inadequacies of the American System. The 2000 election, Trayvon Martin, Terry Schiavo; the list of US disasters, national embarrassments and bureaucratic cluster-fucks in Florida is never-ending. Mark DeFriest is one of those stories. A Floridian who has unwittingly come to represent the shortcomings of the United States. DeFriest was nineteen years old when he went to prison for “stealing” tools that were left to him in his father’s will. If he had waited a few more weeks, his father’s will would have gone through probate and the tools would have been legally, as well as rightfully, his. And he’s been in prison ever since. DeFriest, without hyperbole, is a genius. One who has made functioning firearms out of plumbing fixtures, created handcuff keys out of scrap metal and has escaped from prison nearly a dozen times. He is also mentally ill. The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest not only examines the mad genius, but examines a penal system that can imprison a man for thirty years for stealing a few rusty socket wrenches.
DeFriest is not an entirely sympathetic figure. Despite being put in prison for a crime that really wasn’t, he escaped incarceration numerous times, often under the threat of violence. But director Gabriel London does his best work when he plays on the audience’s expectation of his central figure. When DeFriest is introduced, we see a menacing man through a pane of prison glass, reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter’s introduction in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. London allows his subject the time to become an enigma or a nightmare, presenting him as the government’s fabricated reputation would have you believe, before cracking away the veneer to reveal the man beneath.
The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest is divided into two parts: the story of DeFriest’s crime and subsequent escapes and the legal battle to reduce his prison sentence (at the beginning of filming, DeFriest’s expected release date was 2085, 104 years after taking the tools that led to his confinement). The film’s most inspired choice is to illustrate much of the action surrounding the intricacies of DeFriest’s escape attempts and confinement. Paired with vocal recreations performed by Scoot McNairy (Monsters, 12 Years a Slave) and Shea Wiggum (Boardwalk Empire), the bold illustrations, subtly animated by Jonathan Corbiere, bring DeFriest’s escapes into harrowing focus without being too distracting.
But it’s the second half (albeit much less thrilling than the first) that is the film’s thematic life force. In 1981, the opinion of Dr. Robert Berland is largely what sent Mark DeFriest to prison. Berland concluded that DeFriest had no mental incompetency; he was faking (the source of DeFriest’s very specific mental incapacity is a speculative glimpse into a horrific upbringing). Thirty years later, Berland has realized his mistake and is the primary force in advocating for his release. The nature of their relationship allows The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest to transcend its true-crime premise, and become a touching study on the nature of forgiveness, redemption and mental illness. In the days since seeing the film, I’ve recommended it to several friends and acquaintances. And to my surprise, most of the people I’ve talked with about the film balk at the notion that a man as misguided as DeFriest can be a genius. It does seem paradoxical that a brilliant mind can lack the most basic functions of human foresight and reason. And such is the nature of the film, an exploration of how genius is often overshadowed by the insidious and devastating effects of mental illness.
The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest exemplifies the complexities and oversights in the American Justice System. But it’s not just a film about the failures of a nation; it’s also a brave undertaking of what it means to be a troubled genius. And as for my home state of Florida? What can I say? I’m sorry and I promise we’re not all nuts.