Lesley-Ann Brandt eyes Alexander Dreymon suspiciously in Heartlock

Ah, the prison-break movie. Picture the scene: searchlights sweep across the prison yard as escaping cons scurry to avoid being caught in their incriminating pools of light; heavily armed guards nervously eye the yard, loaded machine guns at the ready; and the warden desperately negotiates with prisoners for the lives of the hostages they’re holding at knife point.

Heartlock (opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Friday, Jan. 25 — no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled) features numerous elements of the classic prison-break movie, but ultimately strays quite far from the template, instead incorporating a few tried-and-true genre tropes into a unique and satisfying storyline. Coming out of nowhere and completely unheralded, it’s the nicest surprise (so far) of the new year.

Set in upstate New York’s fictional Heartlock Correctional Facility, the film begins in cell 22, where inmate Lee Haze (Alexander Dreymon) — a young man with a wispy mustache perhaps intended to make him look mature beyond his years — is penciling a portrait of girlfriend Lily. Doing time for a hold-up in which Lily was also implicated, but for which he took full responsibility, Lee is sensitive and artistic — and, despite the fact she never replies to his letters, enough of a romantic to believe Lily’s waiting for him to break out and rejoin her.

Lee’s dreams come crashing to a halt when dozens of his letters land with a thud in his cell, each of them stamped ‘return to sender’ in condemnatory red. His bitterness curdling to anger, he now has a new reason to break out: revenge against the woman who’s apparently moved on and forgotten him.

On the other side of the cell door, prison guard Tara Sharp (South African actress Lesley-Ann Brandt) has recently been assigned to the night shift. In order to make good his escape, Lee will need to gain her trust, and he’ll also need the help and guidance of Heartlock’s number one hard man, Continental (‘Boardwalk Empire’s Erik LaRay Harvey) . Will his far-fetched scheme work?

Written and directed by newcomer Jon Kauffman, Heartlock is both a surprise and a revelation. Shot on location at a now-closed prison in Standish, Michigan, the film looks every bit as good as a major studio production, features an intelligent screenplay that subverts cliches and expectations, and benefits from an outstanding and committed ensemble cast.

As good as Dreymon and Brandt are — and they’re both more than serviceable — it’s Harvey who steals the show. Strutting imperiously through Heartlock in his gold sneakers, Continental rules the roost, running heroin with the help of a most unusual drug mule and a handful of cooperative guards willing to look the other way in order to supplement their income.

Also notable is Jacqueline Williams as seen-it-all head guard Cruz, who advises Tara to “let nature take its course” after the murder of an inmate. Cruz believes the prison environment — or karma — will take care of punishing those who transgress the written and unwritten laws governing Heartlock’s inmates and employees, and it’s a warning that resonates throughout the film. Behind bars, it seems, what goes around does indeed come around.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...