Heartlock (2018, USA)
‘Downing a Duck‘, one prisoner’s written account of how to cultivate and manipulate a correctional officer to breach prison security, has seemingly been used worldwide as a training tool for new officers. Heartlock is pretty much its filmic equivalent.
At its centre is Lee Haze (Alexander Dreymon), serving a sentence in New York State’s Heartlock Correctional Facility for a series of armed robberies on convenience stores, committed in partnership with his girlfriend, Lilly. In an act of love, he has nobly taken all the blame… but now she is not responding to his letters and he – naturally, for this is a prison film – starts thinking about escape.
He has an incidental first encounter with the prison’s cigar-smoking, gold-toothed top dog, and immediately decides that it is this man, Kirkland ‘Continental’ Bosta (Eric LaRay Harvey), who can effect his escape through his contacts and influence. Luckily, Continental’s cat overdoses on his heroin and Lee, whose prison job is in the infirmary, is called upon to steal and administer some naloxone to bring him back. It’s only after he does that Continental agrees to help, and he does so by giving Lee tips on grooming a guard: downing a duck.
The target is Tera Sharpe (Lesley-Ann Brandt), the daughter of a revered former Warden and now a newish, intense, over-zealous correctional officer. Who, as luck would have it, also happens to have gone to school with Lee… and is not beyond smugly reflecting on their respective paths to prison.
When another guard is caught in corrupt activity and is led away, humiliated, Captain Rosalyn Cruz (Jacqueline Williams) hands Tera his job of being in charge of the ‘Midnight Crew’ – three trusted prisoners who clean critical areas when all the other prisoners are locked away. Continental pulls strings to get Lee on Tera’s crew.
The film is not a rom com, but it follows much the same formula; Lee trying desperately to gain Tera’s sympathy, or trust, or pity. Attention, even. Tera, in return, is sternly resistant; cold, rude, self-righteous, impervious to all of his attempts to engage her. That is, until she somehow gets hooked into his story of his love for Lilly and does some research on her to help Lee out.
Of course, in due course she weakens. They couple. And Lee has to sort out whether, having successfully groomed her, he uses her as he has always intended – to facilitate his escape… or whether he cares too much for her. This dilemma plays out right up to an impressive climax.
Inevitably, there a few technical worries for someone like me. How would any prisoner who has been around the prison long enough to score an orderly’s job in the infirmary (and have written scores of letters to his ex-girlfriend) be unaware of the prison’s cigar-smoking top dog? How does a drunken prisoner who gets close enough to the wall to have a guard’s rifle trained on him remain in a trusted position on the Midnight Crew? How was the deceased prisoner found by the crew in a freezer not identified as missing when prisoners were locked away for the night? And so on.
But ultimately I guess that such things matter little. The tutorial on duck downing is powerful enough to sustain the film’s momentum, and the performances of the cast are without exception excellent; Harvey’s Continental – a tantalising mixture of psychopathic charm and menace – being the standout.
I always struggle in these films (and in real life) to understand why a conservative, rule-bound, risk-averse correctional officer (even a miserable one with abandonment and other issues) would suddenly risk everything on a comparative no-hoper. It’s easier to understand why Lee might pursue Tera; duck or no duck, she is exquisitely groomed, in every sense. The film’s inference that (almost) any correctional officer has vulnerabilities that can readily be exploited, is perhaps good reason to add it to correctional officer recruit curricula worldwide.
And as for people who have no intention of working in the field – Heartlock has romance, betrayal, drama, endemic corruption… and there’s little more that you could you ask for in a prison flick.
The film was shot in the main at the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility (closed 2009) and the G Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Michigan. They do well.
Posted on February 9th, 2019 at 3:31 pm. Updated on June 13th, 2019 at 3:32 pm.
#32 in the Top 500