'Heartlock': Film Review

Heartlock-Publicity Still-H 2019
Dark Star Pictures
Watch 'Escape at Dannemora' instead.

An inmate manipulates a female prison guard into helping him escape in Jon Kauffman's indie drama.

Jon Kauffman's directorial debut has the unfortunate timing of arriving shortly after Escape at Dannemora, the riveting Showtime miniseries about Richard Matt and David Sweat, the upstate New York inmates who engineered an escape by manipulating a female prison employee. Heartlock, which has a very similar storyline, was actually written before those real-life events, so it's not an issue of borrowing. Rather, this indie drama simply lacks the necessary cinematic tension. Despite fine performances from its lead performers, the film never fully comes to life.

The story concerns Lee (Alexander Dreymon, The Last Kingdom), an inmate at a New York maximum-security prison who desperately pines for his girlfriend. Unfortunately for him, she doesn’t return his feelings, and his pleading letters to her are returned unopened.

Lee has a mentor in prison, the older, seasoned Continental (Erik LaRay Harvey, compelling), who turns to Lee for help with such matters as curing his cat after it suffers a drug overdose (it seems dubious that pets are allowed in prison, but you have to just go with it). Continental has little use for Lee's emotionality, berating him: "You talk about love the way a junkie talks about smack."

But he also sees an opportunity in the younger man's friendly relationship with Tera (Lesley-Ann Brandt, Lucifer), a guard whom Lee knew previously on the outside. Tera, who's caring for her elderly father showing signs of dementia, is clearly in an emotionally vulnerable state. Continental urges Lee to cultivate their relationship so he can manipulate her into helping them escape, a process described in prison terms as "ducking."    

You can pretty much guess the rest, with Lee and Tera becoming emotionally intimate and enjoying steamy liaisons in locked storerooms. Just in case you didn't see the plot development coming, the screenplay (co-written by director Kauffman and Chris Cummings) clues you in with a scene early in the proceedings in which the prison's female warden delivers a lecture cautioning the employees about not letting themselves get too close to the inmates and losing perspective.

This being a prison drama, there's also the inevitable violent conflict, in this case between Lee and a menacing fellow inmate (Cedric Young, truly scary) who winds up figuring prominently in the story's melodramatic conclusion. Suffice it to say that self-sacrifice is involved, at least one major character winds up dead and the others bear emotional and physical scars.

Heartlock does boast vivid atmospherics, helped by the location shooting in a long-shuttered Michigan prison. And Dreymon and Brandt, both exuding charisma and sensuality to spare, are magnetic as the illicit lovers. Their excellent work almost, but not quite, compensates for the pic's familiar-feeling aspects.  

Production company: Midnight Crew
Distributor: Dark Star Pictures
Cast: Alexander Dreymon, Lesley-Ann Brandt, Erik LaRay Harvey, Cedric Young, Wayne David Parker
Director: Jon Kauffman
Screenwriters: Jon Kauffman, Chris Cummings
Producer: Veronica Nickel
Executive producers: Chris Cummings, Darlene Winter
Director of photography: David Vollrath
Production designer: Adriana Serrano

Costume designer: Scarlett Jade
Editor: Dominic LaPerriere
Composer: Pat Wiancko
Casting: Todd Thaler

96 minutes