Free as a Jailbird: Houdini meets MacGyver in DeFriest.
Free as a Jailbird: Houdini meets MacGyver in DeFriest.

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Deception is practiced by both the good and the evil. At the most harmless end of that spectrum are magicians like Jamy Ian Swiss, whose commentary about his career frames Robert Kenner’s Merchants of Doubt. Swiss calls his kind “honest liars,” hoodwinking audiences who know they’re being duped. Opposite these tricksters are the cons, the lying liars whose use of misdirection, subterfuge, and artifice on the unwitting is often unlawful.

The titular subject of The Mind of Mark DeFriest has been called an escape artist with the skill of Houdini; even the people he’s unexpectedly fooled admit to his cleverness. Merchants, meanwhile, exposes talking heads posing as experts who claim to debunk scientific conclusions that are not in the financial interests of whichever industry signs their paychecks.

DeFriest, 49, has never hurt anyone, but he’s spent more than half of his life in prison. Merchants offers Big Tobacco as one of the most egregious perpetrators of fraud—yet no one in the industry has served time for selling a product that kills its millions of consumers. To compare the two films seems like a sleight of hand: Which one is about the bad guys, again?

Both take sides, as docs usually do. But The Mind of Mark DeFriest, written and directed by Gabriel London, is a little less down-your-throat. DeFriest was 19 and living in Florida when he first went to jail to serve a four-year sentence for “stealing” his late father’s tools—tools that his dad left him in his will. But he took them before probate proceedings, so his stepmother called the cops.

A month after he was locked up, DeFriest escaped in a less-than-magical way: He ran for it. He didn’t last long on the lam, but he got a life sentence for trying. DeFriest, a brilliant mind rendered restless, decided to turn it into a game, repeatedly breaking out of whatever facility the authorities threw him in. He proved to be more MacGyver than Houdini, but his impressive stunts only dimmed the chances that he’d ever be a free man again.

It takes a while to get a hold of DeFriest’s story as London sets it up with rapidfire voiceovers, highlighted reports, and news articles that fly at the screen. Down-South accents, too, make some dialogue difficult to decipher. But the director eventually slows things down and fills in the blanks, with DeFriest describing his experiences along with friends, family, and the wardens and lawyers who knew him.

Animated sequences, with Scoot McNairy voicing DeFriest, serve as flashbacks. Some, naturally, are violent, but a fair number are just plain funny, as is DeFriest. His sanity was questioned at the beginning of his time in prison and again 20 years later, when he first agreed to try for parole. (Previously, he believed there was no chance.) And though DeFriest may indeed suffer from mental illness, especially after all his years behind bars, his mind is as sharp as the makeshift ice pick he once fashioned (along with handmade keys, guns, and anything else he could use to see the sun again).

The Mind of Mark DeFriest turns into a public plea, asking viewers of early screenings to vote on whether they thought it fair that he remain in prison, because of a minor—and arguable—crime he was charged with at 19. It’s too late to make your voice heard on this case, but the film’s portrait of the ugly side of a judicial system that ultimately serves no one is a cry for unjustly punished prisoners of all sorts.

Before Merchants of Doubt’s first frame appears on the screen, anyone could guess that it’s designed to make viewers angry. Director Kenner also helmed 2008’s Food, Inc., the documentary that spurred its audiences to swear off mass-produced meat and processed food, study up on GMOs, and consider a life in farming. Merchants was adapted from a 2010 nonfiction book by historians Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes, the latter of whom is in the film but not identified as the originator of its source material. That’s a little weird, but audiences riled up about the topic will forgive a few such details as long as the right subjects are demonized.

And Kenner won’t disappoint them. His storytelling, however, isn’t exactly smooth, clunking from smoking to fire retardants to global warming and then smoking again, but in relation to climate change. Of course, the film offers a lot of stats, righteousness, and accusations from both sides about the other side’s lies. The information onscreen will infuriate you, particularly if you lean left—because as many commentators point out, these decades-long debates aren’t about science, but about politics. (A tobacco representative saying, “Anything can be considered harmful,” then giving applesauce as an example, reinforces the theory that book learnin’ plays little part in these debates.)

An especially exasperating segment focuses on Marc Morano, who describes himself, air quotes implied, as an “environmental journalist,” which basically means he goes on TV and shouts down anyone who thinks climate change is real and that human beings contribute to it. A clip of him on The Piers Morgan Show battling Bill Nye is prime evidence that Morano is essentially just an asshole. (He admits to publishing the email addresses of scientists who insist on the facts of climate change, urging his fans to send them hate mail. “I enjoy doing it,” Morano says.)

During his interview here, however, Morano comes across as smart, reasonable, and funny, perhaps the first person to accurately deliver a musty joke with his twist: “I’m not a scientist, although I do play one on TV occasionally. OK, more than occasionally.” And he could be considered representative of his ilk. Those in charge of knocking down—or, as a tobacco company memo calls it, “neutralizing”—the people who threaten to take money out of their pockets with their fancy facts need to be conniving and at least a little brainy to stay a step ahead. It takes wits to argue witlessly.

Unsurprisingly, Republican politicians don’t fare so well, with clips of recent presidential candidates acknowledging that we are worsening our global climate at an alarming rate—but only before their campaigns. Once the vote-grabbing began, their positions changed: “We don’t know enough about it.” This footage is indisputable, but showing a sloppy geezer at a rally wearing a T-shirt with “Global warming my [downward-pointing arrow]” emblazoned on the back isn’t the most respectful (or convincing) way for a filmmaker to make a point. Kenner might as well have included a Bush-ism as an asterisk to viewers at the end of Merchants of Doubt, proud that they now know for certain that bogus talking heads play scientists for pay: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.”

The Mind of Mark DeFriest opens Friday, March 13 at West End Cinema.

Merchants of Doubt opens Friday, March 13 at E Street Cinema.