Like many of the best documentaries, "The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest" recounts a real-life story that's stranger than fiction. To that end, producer-director Gabriel London's fascinating film tracks the astounding journey of "one of the country's most notorious prisoners," Mark DeFriest.
Florida native DeFriest, now 54, has spent the last 34 years behind bars, much of it in solitary confinement. It all began with a four-year jail sentence for charges stemming from DeFriest's "theft" of his late father's tool collection (to which he was the rightful heir) before his dad's will was probated.
Between a series of Houdiniesque escapes — thanks to an uncanny ability to improvise keys and zip guns out of everyday materials — and a rash of disciplinary infractions, DeFriest's jail time ballooned instead of concluded. (Replete with a kind of James Bond complex, he's largely seen here as his own worst enemy.)
DeFriest's situation was further exacerbated early on when psychiatric specialist Robert Berland deemed him mentally competent. This took a potential insanity defense off the table and left DeFriest to the vicissitudes of the Florida penal system.
To flesh out this bizarre tale, London uses stirring interviews with an often laid-back and puckish DeFriest; his longtime lawyer, John Middleton; Berland (who conducts new psychological tests on the inmate here); DeFriest's first wife, Brenda; and his much older current spouse, Bonnie (whom he met online). Coverage of several parole hearings sheds additional light on DeFriest's thorny profile. (A final decision on a parole date is due March 15.)
Aspects of DeFriest's rocky childhood, his creative and mechanical genius and the unthinkable torture and abuse he has experienced in prison are depicted via lively, if perhaps dispensable, animated sequences.
"The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest."
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.