When college student Sawyer (Hermione Corfield) gets stuck in the backwoods of Kentucky in Rust Creek, it’s easy to expect the worst. Over and over again, Rust Creek presents situations for Sawyer that are expected to play one way, but subvert our expectations through a strong, resourceful woman that completely discards the tropes of the helpless woman in need of saving. The way Rust Creek makes its lead a capable, brave female character that spotlights how this kind of character is still a disappointing rarity.
On her way to a job interview in Washington D.C., Sawyer’s GPS leads her down the back roads of the Appalachian Mountains where she eventually gets lost. When Sawyer pulls over to get her bearings, she is met by two scumbag locals, Hollister (Micah Hauptman) and Buck (Daniel R. Hill), who attempt to intimidate the young girl that has graced their path. When Hollister and Buck keep Sawyer from getting back in her car and leaving, it seems like the beginnings of a typical horror film. But instead, Sawyer holds her own, breaking Hollister’s nose and stabbing Buck with her knife. During the fight, Sawyer also receives a deep knife stab to her leg, but runs into the woods and away from her potential captors.
As Sawyer’s wound worsens, she is rescued by Lowell (Jay Paulson), a meth cook who patches her up and keeps her away from his meth-dealing business partners, Hollister and Buck. Again, Rust Creek avoids the expected cliches, as Lowell has more compassion and brains than originally expected, while also avoiding any romantic entanglement between these characters. Lowell attempts to find a safe exit for Sawyer, away from the meth and crooked cops in the area.
When the police story becomes integrated into Rust Creek, the cliches also become more prevalent. Sherriff O’Doyle (Sean O’Bryan) is aligned with the meth cookers, and his dynamic with Deputy Katz (Jeremy Glazer) is obvious and a continual mess of stupid decisions. As the story becomes more about Lowell versus his meth colleagues, Rust Creek unfortunately also puts Sawyer on the back burner, making her more of a tool for this interaction, rather than an actual character.
After Rust Creek’s introduction, the period when Sawyer is stronger than her hunters, it’s hard for this thriller to maintain any suspense or actual thrills. Rust Creek features scenes that are intended to be exciting or gripping, but never quite reach that threshold. There’s no real fear that Sawyer won’t be able to hold her own, and the way director Jen McGowan paces out many of the frantic scenes defuses any uncertainty as to how these moments will play out.
But McGowan’s strength – along with writers Julie Lipson and Stu Pollard – is how they present Sawyer as efficient/proficient within her troubled environment, never allowing herself to become a victim. Sawyer is the powerful character that keeps this film afloat, even when the film does digress into boiler plate thriller schemes. It’s unique to see a film like Rust Creek, written, directed, and shot by women, but even more uncommon to see a female presence this dominant and impressive.