There are films that start off deceptively simple in their premise. You have a small cast of characters and a straightforward situation that leads a viewer to the conclusion that they know what they’re in for, but through clever writing and adept direction, that simplicity can be subverted into a tale that, if not complex, is at least a suspenseful deconstruction of our expectations. Rust Creek is just such a film, slowly burning through its narrative threads until hitting bursts of gunpowder that spark explosions of revelation and dynamism, not exactly transcending the scope of its tropes but making the most of the characters that reside within them.
The story focuses on Sawyer (Hermione Corfield), a college senior driving through the rural countryside on her way to a job interview when her malfunctioning GPS leads her to the middle of nowhere. While she attempts to read a map, two men (Micah Hauptman and Daniel R. Hill) offer their assistance, only for the situation to quickly go south as they attempt to hold Sawyer against her will. With some impressive self-defense tactics, Sawyer breaks free of her attackers, escaping into the woods with injuries that impede her movement. After a night in the woods, she runs across another man, Lowell (Jay Paulson), who holds her captive in order to protect her from the other two men, his cousins. From there, a tangled web of local politics and tense family dynamics unravel as Sawyer is caught in the middle, the continuing target of Lowell’s cousins for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
However, Lowell doesn’t really become part of the story until the beginning of the second act, as the first is primarily comprised of Sawyer making her way through the woods, merely surviving. It’s a bit of gritty acting on Corfield’s part, moving awkwardly without the benefit of dialogue to communicate pain and emotion yet absolutely selling these scenes as harrowing even for their lack of activity. The only real shame is that Sawyer doesn’t have much of a character outside of being this fish out of water, which doesn’t necessarily make her an unfit vessel through which to tell this deeper-than-expected story, merely a hollow one.
The real meat of Rust Creek, though, is in the evolving situation around Sawyer’s attackers, the local law enforcement, and Lowell, who all share a relationship that isn’t obvious to the audience at first but unravels in quick bursts of intense realization, leaving you waiting for the next big piece to fall into place as your knowledge becomes more particular than Sawyer’s. Nearly all the male roles are performed with varying levels of individualized sliminess, with even the nominally heroic Lowell resorting to base and condescending tactics in moments where he saves Sawyer. But as these men’s relationships come into sharper focus, it becomes a tale of paranoia and institutional villainy that leads to a nail-biting climax.
Rust Creek at first appears to be a simple tale of survival, but it makes a meal of its limited budget and cast, telling a story that goes beyond its protagonist even as she is the one who suffers the most consequence as the situation develops. Surprisingly violent at times, this is a film that operates in fits and starts, yet those fits are always calculated to keep you wanting the next development, never treating its lead as helpless even as she is the victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What a great example of the power of independent cinema.