Rust Creek might seem a little familiar on the surface, but once you start digging deeper, you notice that it's forging a path all its own. The general set-up has been used by countless other movies over the years. A young woman, Sawyer (Hermione Corfield), is on her way to a job interview when she makes a wrong turn, causing her to get lost on a rural Kentucky road. She pulls over and, while studying a map, is approached by two hillbilly brothers, Hollister (Micah Hauptman) and Buck (Daniel R. Hill). They make it clear that they intend to take her home and have their way with her. Sawyer fights back, then escapes into the woods, where she promptly gets lost.
This is the point where there's a twist (and I'll refrain from any spoilers here). Sawyer ends up encountering Lowell (Jay Paulson), a loner who carries out a specific illegal task from the confines of a run-down trailer in the middle of the forest. He holds her there against her will, yet promises that it's for her own good. From there, Rust Creek follows Sawyer as she gradually realizes what she's landed in the middle of and starts to look for a way out. Meanwhile, her would-be captors go on a frantic search for her.
One of the most exciting things about the film is that Sawyer is far from being a helpless victim. In that early scene, she doesn't waste any time physically fighting off Hollister and Buck. We can tell that she is aware of the dangers faced by women in today's society and has already learned how to defend herself a little bit. Once with Lowell, a different kind of fighter emerges. Sawyer asks a lot of questions about the activity he's engaged in. This isn't mere talk, nor is it an attempt to “warm up” someone she doesn't trust. No, Sawyer is taking stock of everything around her, absorbing as much as possible in case any of it can be used to help her later on. The character knows she's smarter than the guys who seek to do her harm, so she preps herself. This willingness to fight back both physically and intellectually makes her the first great kickass movie heroine of 2019.
Working from a smart script by Julie Lipson, director Jen McGowan (Kelly and Cal) gives Rust Creek a taut pace and an eerie vibe. Several significant plot developments keep you hooked, as it grows increasingly clear that not much outside help will be available to Sawyer. If she wants to survive, she's more or less going to have to do it on her own. Considerable care has been taken to make the backwoods Kentucky locale feel foreign and threatening. Such authenticity ensures that her struggle to escape remains sufficiently perilous throughout.
Hermione Corfield is a real find. After small roles in The Last Jedi and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, she proves capable of carrying a film with Rust Creek. The actress has a naturally likable quality that earns our empathy immediately. Corfield is also skilled in showing how the wheels in Sawyer's mind are turning, even as she tries not to clue anyone else in on that fact. It's a terrific role for a performer with a lot of promise.
Jay Paulson is similarly excellent as Lowell. It's interesting to see how the relationship between Lowell and Sawyer evolves as the movie progresses. Scenes featuring Paulson and Corfield prove just as engrossing as the story's suspenseful elements because the actors create emotional stakes for the characters. The supporting performances add something, as well. Hauptman and Hill are menacing as the brutish rednecks, without turning them into cliches. They are effectively loathsome villains.
There are one or two minor plot points in Rust Creek that you will probably see coming, although that scarcely matters. This is a gripping indie thriller -- skillfully made, well-acted, and poignant in ways you don't anticipate.
Note: Rust Creek is available in theaters and on demand from IFC Midnight starting January 4.
3.5 out of 4
Rust Creek is rated R for violence, language and some drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.