In a typical story of survival, a wilted flower takes full bloom after a series of life-or-death challenges force them to blossom into the headstrong character who eventually gets out alive. But what happens when your damsel-in-distress isn’t in fact a damsel-in-distress at all?
When we first meet Sawyer (Hermione Corfield), she is a confident, athletic, over-achieving college student heading to an interview for a dream job in Washington, DC during Thanksgiving weekend. In a bid to avoid heavy congestion her GPS diverts her onto a more rural route via the titular Rust Creek in Kentucky, where she is ultimately lost at a dead end. When two local brothers Hollister (Micah Hauptman) and Buck (Daniel R. Hill) pull over to assist Sawyer on the road side, red flags are raised for anyone familiar with the genre. Thinly escaping an assault, Sawyer bolts for the nearby woods. While the gropey rednecks act as the catalyst for Sawyer’s story, director Jen McGowan and screenwriter Julie Lipson make it clear that the well-trodden rape-revenge narrative isn’t their intended route. Sawyer will never be the hapless or vengeful victim.
This trust in her character and the logical decisions she makes after a tumble in the forest leads to a serious leg wound prevent any victim complex from developing. There is little gratuitous depictions of wounds or of semi-naked Sawyer slowly but seductively removing her shirt to wrap her injured leg; like any regular, smart person, she uses her sock. McGowan’s confidence in women’s resilience is depicted in a particularly impressive moment where Sawyer splits one of her press-on nails, and realising they do nothing but hinder her survival, vigorously rips them all off.
There seems to be no doubt that this brave young woman will survive; perhaps a character element some may consider to lack momentum but a welcome change for viewers tired of watching women grapple in the sticks and mud helplessly for an hour. Sawyer’s struggle through rural Kentucky is beautifully captured by cinematographer Michelle Lawler, presenting an unforgiving and cold environment never lacking in scale.
When Sawyer is finally rescued by Lowell (Jay Paulson in a standout role), a loner meth-cook living in a trailer within the woods, the film takes a surprising turn. With his intentions for Sawyer ultimately unclear, and both the brothers and local police department quickly closing in on the missing girl, McGowan’s focus shifts from solely survival to questioning the moral compasses of each character. It’s an impressive layered narrative that delves into the struggle and corruption of small tight-knit communities in rural America when an innocent girl gets caught up in a local drug ring. Lipson savours the depth of her characters, particularly Lowell, whose seemingly tragic backstory is briefly hinted at when the lines between what is morally right and wrong become increasingly hard to define.
Rust Creek lays out a web of corruption in its multi-faceted approach to the survival thriller, diminishing genre conventions with its raw style. Surprisingly heartfelt at times, this high-tension tale deftly explores the misleading nature of first impressions and what it takes to survive.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her lifesource is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here