Director Jen McGowan’s follow-up to her SXSW award-winning comedy “Kelly and Cal” is a survival horror/crime drama. It's a shift for her second feature, and as with her debut, McGowan aims to change the game.

In “Rust Creek,” ambitious college student Sawyer stumbles across trouble in Kentucky’s backwoods when she takes a wrong turn on her way to a D.C. job interview.

When her GPS fails, Sawyer (Hermione Corfield) steps out of her car to examine her map. Tension is palpable when Hollister (Micah Hauptman) and Buck (Daniel R. Hill) pull over and impede her space.

PREVIOUSLY: INDIEWATCH: 'Yes, God, Yes' hits the right spot

It's an all-too-familiar setup in a genre that historically doesn’t bode well for women, but screenwriters Julie Lipson and Stu Pollard are quick to step outside the box.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

“You’re starting to make me uncomfortable,” Sawyer says, laying the groundwork for a protagonist who takes no crap — a skill necessary for what’s to come.

Hermione Corfield (“xXx: Return of Xander Cage”) well represents youth and determination. Watching her shift from steely to increasingly human in nature is no small feat, and Corfield skillfully portrays a solid constitution, terror and despair.

Jay Paulson (“Catch-22”) is striking as Lowell, a mysterious, meth-cooking Silas Marner. Paulson’s character counters any icky stereotypes here, and screenwriters Julie Lipson and Stu Pollard play up an interesting duality in a man who has survived and shifted himself.

“In our life, everyone we meet is a chemical reaction. They change us, and we change them,” he says.

PREVIOUSLY: INDIEWATCH: Wisconsin native shines in 'Trixie Mattel' documentary

Sean O'Bryan (“Olympus Has Fallen”) as police chief O’Doyle effectively emotes his character’s drives, highs and lows with great skill. Insight into his story reignites a waning pace here.

And that’s the main issue I have with “Rust Creek” — it doesn’t know what it is.

It starts as a high-energy thriller, and my interest drained watching one contrived close-call after another as the film dragged its feet into the next plot-point plateau. It shifts from thriller to crime drama to character drama to survival horror, and it’s too much.

Clocking in at almost two hours, this could’ve gained from some tighter cuts.

Visually, director McGowan uses her lens to set up suspense — from the backseat of a car, or through a swirling handheld in the woods, or effectively and impressively building uneasiness through out-of-focus footage.

“I loved the sounds of nature in ‘Deliverance.’ It’s completely detached and disinterested in the suffering of the humans,” McGowan said in an interview, and she and cinematographer Michelle Lawler play up the elements in sweeping shots of woods, waters and winds.

“Rust Creek” feels appropriate for the times in its themes of questioning authority, asserting personal power and the grind of everyday drudgery.

As overachieving Sawyer is forced to wait it out in the woods, she reflects on the busyness of her life: “All that scrambling around … what does it matter?”

Feels familiar.

In all, “Rust Creek” isn’t spectacular. At times, it feels like a waste of time, but its bookends — along with a well-written heroine — rise to the top.

“Rust Creek”

Starring: Hermione Corfield, Jay Paulson, Sean O'Bryan

Director: Jen McGowan

Writers: Julie Lipson, Stu Pollard

Time: 1:48

Rating: R for violence, language and some drug material

Available: Amazon, Google Play, Netflix, VUDU

Melinda Lavine is a features reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Write to her at mlavine@duluthnews.com.
Melinda Lavine is a features reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Write to her at mlavine@duluthnews.com.

Melinda Lavine is a features reporter and movie reviewer for the News Tribune. Write to her at mlavine@duluthnews.com.