It’s hard to choose a single moment that best exemplifies the hard-edged feminist lens at work in director Jen McGowan’s chilling “Rust Creek,” but the image of the teenage Sawyer (Hermione Corfield) gruffly ripping off her acrylic nails to scale a ditch is a top contender. It’s a move that might be perceived as funny in a more commercial genre film, but is entirely believable in McGowan’s understated and plausible nightmare — making it all the more chilling.
Intimate in scope to its great advantage, “Rust Creek” begins and ends with Sawyer’s journey, with a stable of male friends and foes providing color and intrigue. When she receives word of a job interview in Washington D.C., the soon-to-be college graduate hops in her red SUV and hits the road. Following her navigation app, Sawyer turns off the highway to avoid traffic, and quickly finds herself lost on the desolate back roads of rural Kentucky. When she mutters to herself, as if willing it to be true, “I can figure this out,” she is instantly recognizable to anyone who considers themselves capable of handling any situation.
When she pulls over to examine a paper map (how quaint!), two menacing locals attempt to abduct her. Sawyer manages to break free, but not before sustaining a bloody injury to the leg. Impressively fending off two men with a rigor that belies her small frame, she hurries off into the woods, abandoning her car on the side of the road. Interspersed with her increasingly desperate attempts to clean her wound, news of an abandoned vehicle reaches the local police station. Lest we be lulled into a false sense of impending relief, an eager rookie (Jeremy Glazer) is more concerned than the jaded Sheriff (Sean O’Bryan), who has a disturbing familiarity with Sawyer’s attackers.
After finally giving into thirst and exhaustion to collapse in the woods somewhere, Sawyer awakens to find herself in unfamiliar territory yet again: a dingy trailer. Having grown distrustful of strangers (with good reason), she immediately tries to escape before being knocked out. When she wakes up again, this time her hands are bound. Her captor is Lowell (Jay Paulson), a gaunt redhead who cooks meth. Though initially skeptical, she softens when Lowell hides her from her attackers, who are looking for her. Incidentally, they turn out to be not only his cousins, but the ones who distribute his product.
In many ways Sawyer’s situation is an apt metaphor for that uniquely small town sense of walls closing in, and the suspicion that one may never escape. Stuck in a dangerous business with his ne’er-do-well cousins, Lowell more directly embodies this predicament. As with that great odd couple, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, Lowell teaches Sawyer the cook. Dumping the used chemicals into the river, she admonishes him: “Not very green.” Having been alone for so long, this shred of company awakens in him the long-dormant desire for something better.
Under McGowan’s restrained direction, “Rust Creek” is an impressive example of good storytelling overriding budget and star power. Moments like the nails coming off, or when Lowell douses himself in milk after getting hit with lye, hint at a wry sense of humor lurking beneath her capable genre chops. The movie is brilliantly cast — Paulson has that emaciated meth-dealer quality Christian Bale has to work for. Corfield, who boasts bit parts in popular franchises such as “Star Wars,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “xXx,” will have a long career. Like a young Jennifer Lawrence or Elizabeth Olsen, she has the whole girl-next-door-who-could-definitely-beat-you-up thing in the bag.
Written by Julie Lipson with story credit to producer Stu Pollard, the script does a lot with a little, even if it does veer into obvious metaphor territory. The austere minimalism of “Rust Creek” works to the movie’s advantage. After they finish the cook, Lowell tells Sawyer: “Everyone we meet is a chemical reaction. They change us and we change them.” It’s the first time two characters have had a substantial conversation, and even some brief cheesiness is a welcome respite from the chilling emptiness of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“Rust Creek” is playing in theaters now.