In Jen McGowan’s Rust Creek, Hermione Corfield plays Sawyer, a college senior en route to an important job interview in D.C. whose GPS sends her straight into the path of a pair of scuzzy, meth-pushing gits in the backwoods of Kentucky. Smarmy Hollister (Micah Hauptman) and big, beefy Buck (Daniel R. Hill) don’t take her refusal to come and party with them gracefully, and soon she’s scrabbling through the denuded late-November landscape with a deep knife wound in her thigh as the chill deepens and darkness closes in. If you’ve seen enough modern woman-in-peril thrillers, you know to brace yourself for the worst-case scenario. But Rust Creek lets you exhale just a bit. It’s tight without being punishing, and its humor takes you happily by surprise. In this sort of film, you’re on guard for pop-up scares and sudden spasms of gore, not for moments of blessed connection. The humanism feels positively radical.
From the start, it’s clear McGowan will be putting her heroine through hell while protecting her from degradation. It’s an important distinction in an era when even mainstream directors have edged into torture porn as if determined to flay the veneer of civilization off their characters — and their audiences. Corfield’s face never loses its thoughtfulness; you see the wheels turning in her head even when she’s in shock and near robotic. The actress gives Sawyer a witty detachment from what’s happening to her, as if Sawyer will need to live with all this a while — write or tweet about it, maybe — before she commits to a conclusion. Her refuge from her pursuers is a dilapidated stationary trailer in which crystal meth is cooked by a lanky redhead named Lowell, who may want to keep her as his prisoner. Jay Paulson, who plays him, is on a very fluid creepy-dreamboat border: His blue eyes can seem deep and intelligent until he shifts the angle of his head and they look fixed and vacant.
Paulson is best known for his brief run as the distraught younger brother of Dick Whitman (a.k.a. Don Draper) on Mad Men, and he and Corfield have a wonderful, barbed chemistry. (The bright script is by Julie Lipson.) When Lowell is more tight-lipped than Sawyer would like about the science of meth-making, she suggests he’s cooking it by rote — “like one of those European pop bands that sing in English but don’t actually know what any of the lyrics mean.” Lowell doesn’t care for that simile and shows off his knowledge, and she responds as if they’re in a college seminar and have a chance to enlarge each other’s worlds. Lowell has been deep in the woods in all senses; you can feel his pleasure at being able to talk to someone who doesn’t spend all day drinking and doping and plotting to undercut the Mexicans in the meth market. Later in the movie, he says to Sawyer that everyone we meet is like a chemical reaction, that we don’t know what the collision of our cells will bring.
There’s a lot of standard genre material in Rust Creek but with much of the rust scraped off. McGowan and the cinematographer, Michelle Lawler, use every inch of the wide frame, and the landscape, with its hills and twisted limbs, can look ominous or gentle depending on what’s going on. (When Sawyer says to Lowell that she could get used to “the quiet country life,” it seems as if the screenwriter is putting us on — except it is peaceful without those psychos around.) The mood teeter-totters. The county sheriff, O’Doyle (Sean O’Bryan), is a little too intimate with the bad guys for comfort (Lowell calls him “the worst kind of snake there is. He don’t rattle before he bites”), so you don’t know who’ll end up saving Sawyer, except that it probably won’t be a man or someone not named Sawyer.
The violence in Rust Creek isn’t sadistically explicit, but it’s far more cruel than in many splatterfests because the characters aren’t disposable — they’re more authentic than the B-movie situations in which they find themselves. McGowan, Lipson, and the rest of their crew have made a terrific little exploitation movie that doesn’t feel exploitative in the least.
*This article appears in the January 7, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!