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How Rust Creek Makes You Fear the Worst

Photo: IFC Midnight

The new survival thriller Rust Creek is rooted in one of those worst-nightmare scenarios for every parent and daughter in America: A young woman gets lost while driving through a rural area, and the only people around for miles are backwoods drug dealers with creepy intentions. In this case, our young woman is Sawyer (Hermione Corfield), a college student traveling through Kentucky on her way to a job interview in Washington, D.C. She’s hiding the news from her parents because she doesn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, which means they don’t know where she’s going or where to start looking for her if something bad happens on the road. But with a garment bag in hand and a fresh French-tipped manicure, our protagonist starts making her way through Appalachia.

When the radio traffic report comes through and advises travelers to “stay as far away from the highway as possible,” Sawyer sensibly adjusts her route to take back roads around the congestion. But when her map software stops functioning properly, she ends up deep in the kind of territory where people live when they don’t want to be found. Sawyer is standing at the hood of her Jeep, scanning over a paper map when a pair of locals pull up to offer “assistance.” That’s when the familiar fear starts seeping into the frame — familiar to women, at least — and director Jen McGowan, working with a script from Julie Lipson and Stu Pollard, sets the rules of engagement for Rust Creek.

Much like when things take a sharp turn in real life, Sawyer’s day is going just fine until it isn’t. One minute she’s driving toward her future, and the next she’s being intimidated, groped, stabbed, chased through the woods, and restrained inside a meth lab with a man who’s either her captor or her savior. The trials of Rust Creek’s lead start with that fateful confrontation on the road, so Vulture sat down with McGowan to talk about how she used the scene to create a powerful yet relatable heroine — and why what she left off the screen was just as important as what she kept in.

Make a Real Villain

Sawyer looks over her shoulder suspiciously at the good old boys. A palpable feeling of unease settles in. She’s suddenly aware of every move they’re making, and she greets them with that cold courtesy you use when a guy sidles up to your table even though you’re reading a book alone and definitely didn’t invite him over. But McGowan didn’t want her two country boys to feel overtly villainous at first. Before the encounter takes its dark turn, it was important to her that Sawyer’s interaction with the men start out in that much dissected “gray area” of not technically being harassment, but clearly not being welcome. “It’s the creepy guy at the bar, you know?” says McGowan. “It’s the guy that follows you a little too close on the sidewalk who should know better, cause he’s a grown-up. Like, fuck off!

As Sawyer processes the intentions of Buck (Daniel R. Hill) and Hollister (Micah Hauptman), so does the audience. How bad is this going to get? How far is he going to go? Hollister is the more forward of the two, and tells her that if she got lost in the daylight she stands no chance in the dark. And the sun is going down fast. Shooting took place between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 2017 with additional filming around the end of January, so imagine deep-winter short days and extremely low temperatures. (One morning the crew showed up on location and it was just five degrees.)

At this point, Hollister could just give her directions back to the main road, or prove he’s really not a dirtbag by offering to lead her there in his own car. Instead he invites her back to his place to drink a little and smoke a little and just stay the night with them. McGowan wanted Hollister to be the good guy in his own mind. “You’re not doing anything wrong. From your perspective, you’re just picking up a girl, helping her out,” the director told Hauptman. “And that to me is profoundly more scary. For Hollister, it was important to me that his actions, his words, and his vibe slightly disconnect.” Of course, he’s also blocking her from getting back into the car while Buck, clearly the beta, shifts uncomfortably but does nothing to de-escalate the encounter. And when Sawyer firmly declines his offer to party, that’s when just-trying-to-be-nice Hollister escalates things.

Make a Real Hero

“I thought it was something that all women will recognize instantly, that conflict of I don’t feel comfortable, but nothing concrete has happened yet for this to be socially acceptable for me to punch him in the fucking face,” says McGowan of her film’s opening confrontation. “You’re like, It’s what I want to do, and I need to be ready to do it, but I don’t want to be the one to instigate anything.” So, by the time Sawyer voices her discomfort with the situation and Hollister grabs a handful of her ass in return, she is very ready to bury a knee in his groin and break his nose with her elbow, which she does. And when the massive Buck restrains her, she manages to pull the knife from his hip and stick it in his gut, which allows her to sprint off into the woods.

The fight Sawyer puts up is the kind you hope you can deliver on your best day if you’re a woman in the world whose run that confrontation sim in her head roughly 1 million times in various settings — in a parking garage, in the alley by your house. And most importantly, it’s a fight that feels realistic. “I didn’t want to create some superhero version of a person,” says McGowan, who told her stunt coordinator to block out moves for Sawyer that she could have learned “in some cheesy self-defense class,” much like one she took while she was in college at NYU. “We didn’t have the budget to deliver on that promise, so she can’t be a kung fu master. I wanted the fights to be super messy, and within reason.”

And for Corfield’s part, she wanted Sawyer’s athleticism and physical conditioning to come through. When we first see her character in Rust Creek she’s running on a track, and in building a backstory for her, Corfield decided that her Sawyer didn’t come from easy circumstances. She fought to get into college. She fought to get the big interview she was driving to. And she was ready to fight the men who threatened her. “She’s a victim of the circumstances, but she doesn’t let herself be a victim,” says Corfield. “I wanted to play her as if she has a world-weariness. She’s not thinking, Oh, here are two friendly men that are going to help. Strong is such an overused word at the moment, but she’s a female put into a male world, and she has to navigate around that. She’s a kind of solo-operating absolute machine, and I loved it.”

Trigger Warnings

In addition to establishing Sawyer’s grit and launching viewers into the rest of the story, the confrontation at the start of Rust Creek establishes another vital aspect of the film by omission: This is not a rape revenge movie. For many viewers (this one included), the most stressful part of the road scene is anticipating what level of violation the heroine will suffer, and decades of conditioning have ingrained the idea that for a woman to be truly motivated to survive on film, she must first suffer the ultimate degradation. Even for those of us who appreciate rape/revenge cinema, seeing Sawyer make it to the woods is a huge relief. The character is safe for the moment, and McGowan is letting the audience know they are safe with her for the rest of the film. However, so accustomed are we to seeing women sexually assaulted onscreen that several women left test screenings just minutes into the movie, assuming that Sawyer’s attack would end with an inevitable rape.

“At a couple of screenings women have walked out at the beginning of the fight scene,” says McGowan, who wanted the scene to be rooted in that relatable, routine fear for their bodies women have learned to compartmentalize. “And I’m like, I understand why, but no! I’ve got you! They’re not used to a woman making this movie, and I’m like, I made it for you! And the problem is, women are fucking traumatized! I get it, dude. I don’t fault those women. I understand, but it’s also duplicating the experience that Sawyer is going through, which is, Where the fuck is this going? So, I’m okay with that.”

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