“Rust Creek” might look like yet another hillbilly rape-revenge thriller headed exactly where one expects, but after a familiar setup, it ends up paving a different path for itself. Jen McGowan (who previously made 2014’s lovely indie “Kelly & Cal”) and screenwriter Julie Lipson are less interested in putting their heroine through the degrading wringer and instead find an identifiable focal point in a young individual venturing out on her own and not being prepared for what’s coming next in the forgotten backwoods. If it’s not exciting enough that the film is written, directed, shot, and production designed by women, “Rust Creek” is primal but finely nuanced and harrowing without wading into gratuitous, punishing exploitation.
Instead of going right home for Thanksgiving, athletic, ambitious college senior Sawyer Scott (Hermione Corfield) heads to Washington, D.C. for a job interview. Following the GPS on her phone, she takes a detour off the main route through rural Kentucky but then comes to a closed-off road. Sawyer pulls over on a side road and gets out to study a paper map, only to be approached by country bumpkin brothers Hollister (Micah Hauptman) and Buck (Daniel R. Hill) in their pick-up truck. The men initially come off friendly, but once Hollister steps in front of her door and antagonizes her, Sawyer defends herself and manages to escape into the woods with a knife wound on her leg. As the brothers come looking for her, she hides, while wrapping up her leg to stop the bleeding, and ends up surviving the night without being found. Once Sawyer gets lost even deeper in the woods, she ends up being rescued by the brothers’ cousin, crystal meth cook Lowell (Jay Paulson), who may or may not be her savior to get out of dodge.
“Rust Creek” is simple but not simplistic. It begins as a straightforward survival tale with a “what-would-you-do?” scenario that’s horrifying in itself as every shred of hope keeps being taken from Sawyer. Once Sawyer is found and taken back to Lowell’s trailer, the film is still tense but subverts the first act, evolving with the surprising, unforced, and thankfully unromantic kinship between Sawyer and Lowell. Other characters enter the story in crucial ways, including the local sheriff (Sean O’Bryan) and his deputy (Jeremy Glazer), who have different feelings about locating the missing driver of the abandoned vehicle.
Hermione Corfield (2015’s “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation”) is a promising find, capable of carrying a film and impressively essaying a relatable young woman on the cusp of her future, only to have to stare death in the face. Her Sawyer is quick-thinking and resourceful, taking advantage of everything around her, and not a pushover when it comes to putting up a fight and having a lot left in her, and Corfield communicates so much with her expressive face to clue us in to what she’s thinking. Micah Hauptman and Daniel R. Hill are effectively despicable and menacing without being the sharpest tools in the shed, but Jay Paulson is an unlikely source of compassion and humanity, upending expectations as meth cook Lowell.
As the film progresses, one thinks less of movies like “I Spit on Your Grave,” “The Last House on the Left,” or even 2013’s underseen indie “Black Rock” and more of 2010’s riveting “Winter’s Bone,” which also told a tough story with a vivid sense of place, and that’s not a shabby comparison. Dynamically photographed on location in the Kentucky woods with cinematographer Michelle Lawler, filmmaker Jen McGowan brings an evocative mood and authenticity to the tranquil but treacherous landscape that, excuse the cliché, feels like a character unto itself. Even if “Rust Creek” isn’t always cooking up thrills, that it becomes more meditative and character-oriented makes the film a stronger genre effort overall. It digs its claws into you, but then it proves that not all Kentuckians are cut from the same cloth.