The backwoods and its inhabitants have been a cornerstone of contemporary horror films for decades. Hillbilly hicks and their sterotyped lack of intelligence and aggressive behaviour makes for an easy villain, usually with young people as the targets of their anger.
Rust Creek, directed by Jen McGowan (Kelly & Cal) and written by Julie Lipson, tells the tale of a young but smart woman who is caught up not only in the hillbilly's violence, but their own nefarious dealings that leave her vulnerable and almost completely alone. While following a more or less familiar path, McGowan does not shy away from the harsh relatities of rural middle American life, while not taking away any blame born by men for their violence towards women.
Sawyer (Hermione Corfield) is on her way to a big job interview, when her GPS takes her down a strange, almost completely abandoned highway. There, she has the misfortune to meet Hollister (Micah Hauptman) and Buck (Daniel R. Hill), two rednecks who think nothing of immediately harrasing her when they suspect she might have seen them plying their illegal trade in meth. In fighting them off, Sawyer is stabbed, but she gets away, only to find herself lost with the men after her, determined that no one should find her.
But someone does: Lowell (Jay Paulson), who makes the meth in his trailer, with little communication with the world. He tells Sawyer she'll have to wait a few days before he can get her out, and she must trust him or try to make it out alive on her own.
Thus begins a thriller that keeps its tension high and sharp for most fo the film, while allowing the story and characters some room to breathe and explore various power dynamics. Sawyer might be young, but she's smart. She is forced to be polite to Hollister because she immediately recognizes her danger. When she calls him on his behaviour and the fight begins, she fights back. Even when she runs into the woods, she knows that hiding is still her best option.
Sawyer might be a bit more wordly than Lowell, but she is aware enough to at least try to trust him. As the county sheriff turns out to be involved in the meth production, and his deputy unknowingly works against his boss, Sawyer hides out in Lowell's trailer, getting to know him and his situation. This is when the film moves from thriller to more studied drama, in the vein of Winter's Bone. We might make fun of backwoods people, but their lives are not pretty, and they have been, in many ways, reduced to drug production because there is nothing else available to keep them 'employed'.
But this bridge between the second and third act does start to drag a bit, and the fact that the deputy and the state police take so long to put together Sawyer's disappearance stretched a bit thin. It's not clear if there is supposed to be a moral to the story, or if Sawyer is supposed to learn something (except maybe to learn to trust a guy now and then? Not really the time or place for it).
Still, Sawyer is a character with agency, strong enough to fight back, and smart enough to know when to back off, and even if that agency means she must hide and trust, but she learns quickly, unlike the men who are after her. McGowan keeps the scenarios (for the most part) real and threatening enough to keep the audience at the edge, wondering how or even if Sawyer will manage to escape.
Rust Creek will be in select cinemas and VOD in the USA on January 4th.