Indie Film Focus: Mark Ashton Lund’s “Justice Is Mind” (2013)

Official Poster for JUSTICE IS MIND (2013)

Official Poster for JUSTICE IS MIND (2013) — image source: Mark Ashton Lund; used by permission

“In a future where MRI technology can read your mind, the trial of the century soon begins when a defendant faces his own memory for a double murder he doesn’t remember committing.”

Justice Is Mind is a psychological crime mystery and courtroom drama that is set in a dystopian near-future. The world “dystopian” is used here cautiously, as the United States envisioned by the film is a logical extension of current events based on certain hot-button issues, such as privacy rights, government surveillance, civil rights, police powers, bioethics, and medical technology.  As producer/director/writer Mark Ashton Lund pointed out, “a July article in The Atlantic magazine titled ‘Could the Government Get a Search Warrant for Your Thoughts?'” is an indication of how “Justice Is Mind is well timed.”

The film posits a very possible future. In the year 2026, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology has advanced past its current limits. At present, neuroimaging techniques like functional MRI (fMRI) can correlate mental activity with brain anatomy and physiology. In the world of the movie, fvMRI (functional video MRI) can actually read a person’s memories and store and display them as audiovisual files. Due to conflicts between privacy rights and legal implications, any person who has this test must sign a HIPAA waiver in which he or she acknowledges that any capital crimes depicted in his or her memories will be reported to the appropriate law enforcement agency.

In such a state of affairs, it would only be a matter of time until a legal test case emerges. Henri Miller (VERNON ALDERSHOFF), a successful restaurateur and family man in Massachusetts, is the unlucky person chosen by fate to play this role. Plagued by unexplained headaches since childhood, Henri seeks the help of a neurologist, Dr. Eve Pullman (CARLYNE FOURNIER), when the pain from these headaches becomes excruciating and unbearable. All the tests that Dr. Pullman runs are negative, ruling out all but psychogenic causes. She recommends fvMRI as a way of discovering whether or not Henri has a psychological conflict based on past traumatic experiences. Initially opposed to this recommendation, Henri eventually assents after he has an episode of syncope (an unexplained episode of unconsciousness not due to a seizure) at home and winds up in the hospital.

Henri has been under investigation by the local police due to the disappearance of two contractors who had worked on the construction of his third and soon-to-be opened restaurant. Henri had sued them for botched electrical and plumbing work and had a violent confrontation with them just before they disappeared. When his fvMRI test data are processed, Dr. Pullman finds a memory that apparently depicts Henri shooting both men in a field at his farm. Although Henri cannot consciously recall this memory, he is nevertheless immediately arrested by detectives led by a zealous and ambitious local district attorney, Constance Smith (KIM GORDON), who charges him with two counts of second-degree murder.

Henri's memory of murder

Henri’s memory of murder — image source: official movie website

The remainder of the film is largely a courtroom drama with two related subplots. While Henri is on trial for his unconscious memories alone (the prosecution has found no bodies and is therefore unable to link Henri’s pistol with the alleged crime), an investigator (EDWARD BOWES II) known for his unorthodox methods is hired by Henri’s defense counsel, John Darrow (PAUL LUSSIER), to pursue any angle that would discredit the reliability of the fvMRI technology. When the investigator pursues leads about Dr. Pullman’s connections to the U.S. government and the German company that invented fvMRI, he is led down a path of international intrigue. At the same time, a family drama plays out between Henri and his father, Joseph Miller (RICHARD SEWELL), a Christian pastor. Gary has a history of conflict with Henri and knows dark family secrets that turn out to have a direct relationship to Henri’s predicament.  It is not until Henri’s wife, Margaret Miller (ROBIN ANN RAPOPORT), an author of books about government conspiracies, gains access to these secrets that Henri’s memory can be fully explained. But will justice prevail in the end?

This movie is Lund’s first feature-length film. Lund explained how he came up with the concept for the movie: “It was in 2009 when I saw a 60 Minutes story that discussed ‘thought identification’ mind-reading techniques that have been developed by Dr. Marcel Just and his team at Carnegie Mellon University. That broadcast gave me the initial idea for what would become my first feature film.”

Lund himself is a prolific person who has had success in diverse endeavors. According to his website, he is “an award winning magazine publisher, thrice award nominated screenwriter, television personality, producer, director, actor and writer.” He started out as a television sports analyst covering international figure skating (which included appearing as a judge on FOX’s Skating with Celebrities in 2006). He also wrote a book on the sport, Frozen Assets: The New Order of Figure Skating (2002). Next, he founded Ashton International Media and launched Scene, a contemporary newsmagazine for the gay community that was distributed in nine countries.

After leaving Scene in 2006, Lund wrote his first feature-length screenplay, First World, which was nominated for screenplay awards at the California Independent Film Festival, The Movie Deal and Fantastic Planet Film Festival. Later he condensed the story and produced a 25-minute short film version that has screened at 20 sci-fi conventions around the world. It was released on DVD by IndieFlix and Hulu in 2009. After serving as Director of a successful IMTA talent/modeling program, he worked as the drama director for Becker College, where he produced/directed Break Fast, Antigone Now and The Long Red Herring. It was during this period that he wrote the screenplay for Justice Is Mind. In 2011, Lund produced and directed the short film Evidence, which was based on this screenplay. After Evidence premiered in early 2012 and was subsequently distributed through IndieFlix, Lund secured funding to produce the feature-length version.

Justice Is Mind premiered at The Palace Theatre in Albany, NY on August 18, 2013, during the Capital District Film Festival. Since then, it has been screening at select theatres, universities and sci-fi conventions in North America. The next theatrical screening is May 19 at The Elm Draught House Cinema in Millbury, MA:

Mr. Lund gave this reviewer access to a screener copy of the movie in exchange for a fair and honest review. I found that this film is yet another illustration of a point made by veteran screenwriter and film school professor Lew Hunter (quoted in the previous post to this blog). Since “everything’s been done before,” the point is “not what you do but how you do.” There have been movies about machines that can read and influence human minds (e.g., Total Recall) and countless flicks about murder trials (e.g., 12 Angry Men). However, Lund’s screenplay achieves Hunter’s recommended individualism by setting these topics in the context of relevant and important sociopolitical issues currently being debated in the United States.

Moreover, it tells a good story. Without spoiling the ending, I can tell you that you will not be able to guess what it is, although it is foreshadowed several times. I can say that it ties up all the threads of the plot in a very satisfying manner. Aside from some relative weakness in the first act, the characters and dialogue are strong and believable. I am particularly impressed with the strong performance of leading actor Vernon Aldershoff. Although the entire cast is solid, Carlyne Fournier, Kim Gordon, Paul Lussier, and Mary Wexler (as Judge Wagner) deliver particularly strong supporting work in the courtroom drama portion of the movie. Leading actress Robin Ann Rapoport nicely plays a character who has two important roles: an anxiously supportive wife and a conspiracy-theory author who refuses to accept the official version of any story. My favorite performance comes from Gordon; she plays one of those characters that movie-goers love to hate and does so with skill.

This film also makes judicious use of special effects (supervised by Adam Starr) to show the operations of futuristic technology. I appreciate the cuts to historical footage, which are neatly edited into the film. Given my current fetish for opening sequences, I think that the montage over which the opening credits play is excellent. My favorite cinematographic touch, however, comes at the end of the film, as the camera zooms out from a shot of the Miller’s farm to reveal the surrounding landscape. You will have to see the movie to understand the significance of this final sequence.

FRISCO KID’s Rating: 4 stars

Look for this film to be available in a theatre near you and via VOD in the near future. In the mean time, check out the trailer: