Rust Creek begins like a cautionary tale that might be whispered in hushed tones at the fraught end of a long girls night. Did you hear about the girl whose GPS turned her down a dangerous back road through a cruel Kentucky forest? When she stopped to get her bearings, she was accosted by a pair armed and leering locals. But college athlete Sawyer (Hermione Corfield) refuses to be a damsel in distress or see her story end in a shallow grave. She’ll fight back, flee, and do whatever it takes to survive, even if that means making a shaky alliance with a meth-cooking recluse.
At first, Rust Creek reminded me of Killing Ground, a 2017 horror-thriller in which a young couple gone camping are hunted by a merciless pair of gun-toting rednecks. The heroine here is stalked by a similarly dangerous duo, Hollister (Micah Hauptman) and Buck (Daniel R. Hill). But Sawyer’s scurrying about the woods doesn’t take up much of the runtime of this unique thriller. Instead, she’s taken in by this gruesome twosome’s cousin Lowell (Jay Paulson). He’s an enigmatic rescuer who chains her to the wall of his trailer, but hides her from her would-be murderers. Though confused by his actions, Sawyer forms an unexpected friendship with Lowell as she helps him cook meth for his Hollister’s upcoming deal. Meanwhile, a police investigation brews that threatens to bring an explosive end to this backwoods drama.
With a restrained tone and matter-of-fact production design, McGowan makes Rust Creek feel like a true crime story unfolding before our eyes. On her way to Washington D.C., Sawyer’s traveling in simple sweatpants, a sweater, sneakers, and a no make-up look. She’s a smart young woman. So when a smirking Hollister and scowling Buck approach her SUV, she’s polite in the way women are taught to be when alone with strange men. But when Hollister invites her back to theirs, she declines. When he puts himself in between her and her car door, Sawyer fucks politeness and doesn’t wait for him to strike first. The fight is quick, leaving both sides bleeding. And when she knocks him and his brother to the ground, she knows there’s no time to race back to her car, and so hides. Nothing here feels Hollywood badass. She’s not got perfectly lacquered eyelashes or a winking one-liner to pitch as she stabs Buck in self-defense. However sloppily, Sawyer is just looking to stay alive. She’s scared but not senseless, quiet but not steely. She’s dragging a damaged leg behind her, washing its open wound in the running stream. She takes her blood-drenched sock off to make a bandage as best she can. And all these little, grimy details make Rust Creek feel chillingly real.
Sly visual details throughout tell a story that won’t be spoken. A shattered picture frame found in the burned-out cabin, the wedding band on the finger of a man who lives alone give us all we need to know. Similarly, a forgotten footstep, a jar of lye, or a scene where Sawyer wordlessly pops off all her pristine acrylic nails on a grizzled rock show us all we need for setting up what comes next. McGowan conjures an atmosphere of danger and dread, leaving her audience gasping as the film barrels into its killer climax. The tension is thicker than the noxious fumes in that trailer as Sawyer and Lowell are forced into action. But what makes this movie really standout are their mellower moments.
Corfield and Paulson create a striking onscreen chemistry that is absolutely compelling. I found myself wishing Rust Creek was longer just so I could watch more of these two inexplicable friends hanging out. Saywer’s initial—and merited—suspicion of Lowell softens after his first defense of her. But even as she risks trusting him, he forces her to confront her own prejudices against uneducated rural folk like him. They have a conversation about chemistry and condescension that’s challenging and strangely heart-warming. They share a natural curiosity and love of science and making meth just happens to be the way these interests collide here. It’s almost funny how sweet this grim thriller gets in these scenes. But with Hollister and Buck on the hunt, we know this fragile harmony can’t last. Which gives every second an edge.
Ultimately, Rust Creek is an enthralling thriller that pitches audiences into deadly backwoods with a heroine who takes no shit, but is far from invincible. By grounding the first act in real word details, McGowan enhances the tension of Sawyer’s struggles. Because while horror movies often have a Final Girl, true crime stories most often have a dead girl. And so we watch, our breathes held, our pulses racing, our hearts pounding with hope, even as the wolves come circling.
Header Image Source: IFC Midnight