If you’ve watched enough thrillers, you know that nothing good comes to city folk who wander into the backwoods. We’ve seen so many fish out of water horror over the years and the deep woods killer/rapist has become such a recognizable trope that it got the meta-horror treatment with Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, joining the ranks of zombie movies, slashers, vampires and the other horror staples so popular they spawn self-referential humor.
Which is all to say that when you start a movie and see an ambitious young city girl get lost in the woods, you feel like you’ve got a pretty strong sense of where this is all going to go. Fortunate then, that there are films like Rust Creek that surprise by leaning into the strengths of the backwoods thriller while subverting the predicted beats. Screenwriter Julie Lipson and director Jen McGowan aren’t as interested in putting their heroine through a graphic, exploitative wringer (though they indulge in the thrills of survivalism in the film’s familiar first act) as they are invested in the character drama of her survival.
Like many survival thrillers, Rust Creek follows a young college co-ed, Sawyer (Hermione Corfield) into a remote forest, where she gets lost on her way to an important job interview. One quick and violent encounter with two local yokels later — which demonstrates Sawyer is a hyper-competent, quick-thinking fighter — and Sawyer is running through the dense woods with a deep wound and no sense of direction.
I’ve been waiting to see a solid starring vehicle for Corfield since her memorable bit part in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, where she plays the ill-fated record shop attendant in the film’s opening minutes. Corfield made a lot of just a few moments on screen; charismatic, strong chemistry with her scene partner (Tom Cruise, no less), and one of those faces seemingly made for lighting up a screen. With Rust Creek she lives up to that promise, and McGowan wisely puts a lot of faith in Corfield’s hyper-expressive face to communicate without saying a word. Rust Creek is not a dialogue-driven film, especially in the action-driven first act, but Corfield’s telling micro-expressions keep us with her on every painful step of her journey.
As thrilling as the first act is (especially the initial confrontation, which doesn’t go quite the way anyone expects,) the film comes alive at the second act turn, when Sawyer gets rescued and/or arguably kidnapped by a mysterious recluse named Lowell (Jay Paulson) and their prickly, unconventional dynamic lights the film with a spark of unpredictability and old-fashioned soul. A meth cook with unexpected ties to Sawyer’s plight, Lowell is an inscrutable fella first; patient and quiet with the peculiar kind of personality one develops as a hermit. You’re never quite sure where he’s coming from, and Paulson plays the balance beautifully, walking around like the human embodiment of a heavy sigh.
With leads as taciturn and Shrewd as Sawyer and Lowell, many of Rust Creek’s most impressive character moments are hushed, understated affairs, which turns out to be both a strength and weakness.. The upside is the lovely, unforced connection that slowly blossoms between the characters, but the downside is that all the quiet and stillness causes the tension to lag — especially when the action turns to the film’s primary antagonist, a bumbling figure of small town corruption who’s as trite and predictable as the film’s leads are nuanced and surprising.