2018 was a massive year for women in horror from Revenge to Cam, and even the Halloween redux ferociously headed by our queen Jamie Lee Curtis. Hopefully, 2019 is set to follow in its footsteps and with Rust Creek we’re off to a good start. Written, directed, and fiercely led by women, it’s an empowering if slight tale of strength, struggle, and human perseverance.
English actress Hermione Corfield, whom fans will recognise for her bit parts in Star Wars as well as a leading role in the otherwise throwaway Slaughterhouse Rulez, stars as Sawyer, a college senior driving the long road from Kentucky to Washington D.C. for an important job interview. Echoing last year’s brilliant Unsane, this Sawyer also does not play around.
Early on, traffic reports advise her to stay off the highways due to impending holiday traffic. As a result, Sawyer and her massive, seemingly impenetrable, SUV venture into the backwoods parallel to the titular creek. The camera pulls back to show how vast the woodland is, and how isolated Sawyer is as a result. It’s not long before two dudes show up offering their “help.”
Rust Creek is primarily focused on the female struggle. Sawyer’s interaction with the two strange men who approach her pledging to assist with directions, although it only takes up about ten minutes of screen-time, is the strongest and most frightening sequence. This young woman, totally alone and trying to be polite, takes a risk even admitting how uncomfortable she is.
She naturally has some fight in her, as noted in the film’s opening moments, when Sawyer is shot running on a track, the camera focused on her lean, strong legs. It’s one of those legs that gets stabbed, leading her grey sweatpants to turn dark red with blood and leaving Sawyer limping through the harsh terrain, trying to make it through the night without being spotted.
Watch as the camera zeroes in on her perfect French manicure before Sawyer has to tear her false nails off to climb a cliff — there’s plenty of attention to detail here, and of understanding. The vibe is authentically rustic, similar to Killer Joe, Winter’s Bone, or even last year’s Hold The Dark. Writer Julie Lipson clearly knows this world, and these characters, very well.
As the story expands to include an uppity deputy, and the sheriff he tries to convince to look for Sawyer even when the trail goes cold, Rust Creek saddles its heroine with a local meth lab operator who may or may not have her best interests at heart. Their interactions are surprisingly naturalistic, especially when the science student makes the best of a bad situation.
Sawyer and her captor form a weird sort of bond, but it’s worth noting that neither Lipson nor director Jen McGowan ever hint at Stockholm Syndrome taking hold — their heroine is too smart for that. Even in the harshest circumstances, Sawyer is tough and dilligent. You can almost see the cogs turning in her brain as she tries to figure everything out.
Corfield is terrific as the lead, committing fully to the dirt-under-her-fingernails scenario. She’s a hugely likeable screen presence, and it’s easy to imagine her headlining darker fare in future thanks to those deceptively soft features. Sawyer is a character only a woman could conceive, and Corfield suggests a multitude of layers with just the tiniest tilt of her eyes.
Rust Creek boasts some lovely cinematography (the film was shot by a female DP, too) that captures how equally harsh and beautiful the virtually untouched countryside is. There’s a good sense of geography, both before and after Sawyer is captured. Likewise, the suggestion of a town-wide conspiracy is well-handled and never overplayed.
McGowan’s movie is an IFC Midnight selection, so hopefully it’ll find the right audience. Horror fans might think it slightly underwhelming in the violence department, and there is virtually no gore to speak of, but female viewers will recognise as they did with Unsane a story of a woman punished for having the gall to say no, and the accompanying fear of the consequences.
Whether stranded in the woods or stood right by your car, it’s easy to identify with Sawyer’s terrifying predicament.
Catch Rust Creek in select theaters and On Demand from January 4, 2019
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Jen McGowan
Writer(s): Julie Lipson
Stars: Hermione Corfield, Jeremy Glazer, Jay Paulson, and Micah Hauptman
Release: January 4, 2019
Studio/ Production Co: Lunacy
Length: 108 Minutes