Darned GPS! You just can’t trust those things. That’s one of the earliest takeaways from “Rust Creek”, a new survival picture which right out of the gate feels like something we’ve seen several times before. But it doesn’t take long to see there is a lot more to this little independent gem than meets the eye.
Turns out “Rust Creek” is a delightfully harrowing thriller from director Jen McGowan. She along with screenwriter Julie Lipson take a fairly well known basic premise and inject it with a surprisingly restrained tone and genuine human empathy. With a fantastic use of character and setting, McGowan creates a tense atmosphere full of dread and suspense.
Hermione Corfield plays Sawyer, a college student who decides to skip Thanksgiving with her family for a job interview in Washington DC. Along the way her GPS reroutes her around road construction, miles down a rural highway, and deep into the Kentucky hills. When she stops to get her bearings two local yokels (Micah Hauptman and Daniel R. Hill) pull up, a bit concerned about her presence in ‘them thar hills’. A scrap ensues leading Sawyer running through the cold woods with the bumpkins on her trail.
So far it sounds like fairly familiar territory, but McGowen keeps it from being too conventional. For instance Sawyer is instantly portrayed as a strong young woman with plenty of fight in her. That’s always welcomed but you can ride it too far. Instead we see that (like most of us) her strength has limits. For instance she’s no deep-woods survivalist. Soon nature and the elements take their toll both physically and psychologically. Still she is no ‘damsel in distress’. Even when there is the appearance of submission to her situation you can see the wheels turning in her head.
Corfield is a big reason it works so well. After memorable bit parts in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” this is the first leading role for the 25-year-old English actress. She’s more than able to handle the demands of the part which asks her to carry most of the load. Much of the film’s first half sees her leaning on physicality and expression while the second half gives her more dialogue to work with.
This is also where the film works the hardest to defy traditional stereotypes. Sawyer is unknowingly rescued by a meth cooker named Lowell (Jay Paulson). This unexpected dynamic leads to some interesting perspectives on rural poverty, the meth epidemic, and several other social issues. A local sheriff (Sean O’Bryan), who is set in his backwoods ways of doing things, adds yet another wrinkle to Sawyer’s situation.
At a key point “Rust Creek” surprisingly pivots from its seemingly conventional survival-thriller mold to a more dialogue-driven character exploration. It can be a slow boil but most importantly it never loses its suspense. McGowen makes sure her film offers us constant reminders of the looming dangers to Sawyer making it easy to invest in her and her plight. That’s a mark of a good thriller.
VERDICT – 4 STARS