Film & Television

Women Behind the Camera: ‘Rust Creek’ and ‘State Like Sleep’

My daughter is a competitive equestrienne. So, when it came time to look at colleges, the University of Kentucky at Lexington was a logical possibility. My husband was appalled. He had become a loyal fan of the FX television series Justified, and in his mind the woods of Kentucky were filled with dentally challenged, undereducated lowlifes engaged in myriad illegal activities upon which one might stumble and become irretrievably involved.

Suffice it to say, it’s a good thing he hadn’t seen Jen McGowan’s new film, Rust Creek.

In all fairness to the bluegrass state, and Lexington in particular, the campus we visited was lovely, and the surrounding countryside, with its bright green meadows, crisp white fences and elegant stables, was breathtaking. It’s appropriate to picture a handsome college campus, because that’s where Sawyer, McGowan’s determined heroine, starts off.

Sawyer (the impressive young Hermione Corfield) is a college senior, athletic and accomplished. She receives a voicemail from a prospective employer encouraging her to come to Washington and interview for a job for which, thanks to an earlier internship, she is practically a shoe-in. Sawyer, who has stayed at school over Thanksgiving break, loads up her car and heads north. Her GPS system warns her about a major accident and delays on the highway, so she decides to detour through some backwoods and is soon lost. When she gets out to look at a map, a truck pulls over and two men, Hollister and Buck (Micah Hauptman and Daniel R. Hill), offer to help her, then leeringly suggest that she spend the night. After a tense few minutes, they block her way back into her car and attack her. Sawyer fights back, breaking Hollister’s nose and stabbing Buck with his own knife. In the struggle, her leg is seriously cut, but she gets away, running from the road up into the woods and successfully outmaneuvering her assailants. She’s badly wounded, however, and when the two men push her car off a cliff and her mobile phone runs out of power, her future looks bleak. Unable to walk, she eventually passes out.

She wakes up in a trailer, with her wound dressed, but her hands tied. Her host is an odd outsider, a meth cook named Lowell (Jay Paulson), who we learn is Hollister’s cousin. As the story continues, we discover that the mess Sawyer has stumbled into is even messier than we originally assumed, involving seemingly inept local lawmen and a major drug deal (“the Mexicans” are mentioned as the gang’s competition). She must decide whether she can trust Lowell, because there are plenty of others who would rather she disappeared.

Up until a point, Rust Creek follows a fairly predictable formula. In recent years, exploitive movies like I Spit on Your Grave and Revenge have featured female victims who turn the table on their attackers. With graphic and violent rape scenes precursing any acts of vengeance, these often feel more like male fantasies than tales of true female empowerment. Rust Creek is different. First of all, although seriously threatened, Sawyer gets away before she’s sexually violated. And she doesn’t become some sort of kickboxing superheroine in the second act. She’s smart and resourceful, very much determined to survive, but she’s limited by her injury — not to mention that she’s lost in the woods miles from civilization or even a payphone.

McGowan, working with a script by Julie Lipson, does default to some stock characters. Hollister and Buck couldn’t be more stereotypical redneck villains, and scenes between the local sheriff and his earnest deputy are fairly predictable. But she does build an interesting relationship between Sawyer and Lowell. He’s a loner and a philosopher; he teaches her chemistry as she helps him cook meth (knowledge that will serve her well in a final showdown with the bad guys). Their fine acting, and the chemistry between them (forgive the pun), make the film much more interesting and give both actors an opportunity to shine.

Rounding out the all-female creative team is Michelle Lawler, whose cinematography brings the Kentucky woods to life in ways that often make them beautiful as well as menacing. In her hands, the setting practically becomes another character, unforgiving but visually rewarding. Despite her dire situation, Sawyer admits to Lowell that she could “get used to the quiet country life.” After everything she goes through, however, I doubt she’ll return to those Kentucky woods any time soon.

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