GFF 2021: The Toll Review
It’s easy to see why people have compared comic thriller The Toll (2021) to the work of the Coen brothers. Dark humour. Oddball characters. Sharp dialogue. A woman in a hat that makes her look an awful lot like Marge Gunderson from Fargo (1996). Yet director Ryan Andrew Hooper isn’t shy about treading familiar ground, using these cinematic references as a way to instil tension into the narrative while also paying homage to the films he loves. It’s a bold and impressive method that has us knowingly nod along throughout. Sadly it doesn’t always work though, The Toll repeatedly feeling bloated under the weight of everything that’s happening – something that doesn’t help the film’s needlessly complicated story.
Although this takes place amongst the rolling Welsh valleys, Rael Jones’s twangy guitar score and Adrian Peckitt’s sweeping cinematography often make it seem like the Wild West. Albeit a much greener one. It’s a brilliant and startling portrayal that immediately hints that there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface of this peaceful countryside. And police officer Catrin (Annes Elwy) is about to uncover a few of these sinister truths herself with a visit to the local toll booth operator (Michael Smiley). This lone, mysterious man with no name has got a tale to tell her involving gunpoint robbery, murder and vengeance. One that could be the very thing she needs to help her solve a crime that she’s been chasing down all day. More importantly though, her reward for listening might finally give her some answers to an incident from her past.
That dark, taut opening certainly has our attention from the get-go, Hooper and screenwriter Matt Redd diving headfirst into this grisly, engaging narrative, with questions and bodies soon piling up. It’s a real shame then that this promising plot is completely squandered by the method Hooper and Redd chose to tell it, with the film zipping back and forth across different timelines. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but here it makes it difficult to grasp who’s double-crossing who, turning this into a confusing mess while also breaking the suspense of several key scenes. Indeed, this nonlinear timeline feels like it’s only there to inject a bit of life into the proceedings and as a way to distract us from the clichés that roll in thick and fast (the big bad boss, a past coming back to haunt someone). Again, nothing wrong with that. Yet it isn’t delivered with the kind of clever or distinctive flair that could have turned these moments into something truly interesting, these tired tropes causing many of the story’s twists to fall flat.
Redd’s dialogue often shows great potential though, a lot of it sharp and gripping, particularly whenever Michael Smiley and Annes Elwy are talking together – quiet sequences that genuinely heighten the tension and keep us watching (and which are sadly always over with far too quickly). Smiley’s portrayal is perfectly menacing, but he really is wasted here, with most of the scenes leaving him stuck in a toll booth making phone calls. At least Catrin has a backstory that allows us to get to know her a bit more and which manages to add much-needed emotion. Yet for the other characters, Redd’s writing is lacking depth. Many of them are just too eccentric for us to care about, such as the girl who dresses up as Elvis (Evelyn Mok) and her mute partner (Darren Evans), both of whom seem to be there for the sake of an easy laugh. And Iwan Rheon and Paul Kaye are so manic that it’s as if they’ve wandered in from the set of another film entirely, delivering their lines with none of the subtly that Smiley’s performance has. With the exception of Smiley and Elwy they’re all very forgettable – a sentiment that can also be used to sum up The Toll.
With an intriguing tale and a strong set-up, there’s a glimmer of potential underneath everything going on here. Trouble is there’s a lot going on. The messing up of time, the grisly comedy, the outlandish characters – it’s a case of let’s throw as much as we can at this and see what sticks. And the answer is, nothing really does. It’s clear that by mixing all of this in Hooper is aiming for the likes of a Coen brothers or a Martin McDonagh story (with the violent scenes and macabre humour it feels similar to In Bruges (2008)), but this pales in comparison, those cinematic influences unfortunately just proving that this isn’t a patch on the films it’s referencing. Even a gory shootout done in the style of a Spaghetti Western is overwrought and nonsensical (it’s impossible to tell who’s shooting who). And while some moments are funny (mainly Smiley’s perfect deadpan delivery of certain lines), jokes don’t always land (an iPad gag is so cringe it’ll make you squirm), leaving most of this a chore to get through. It’s a shame though as with the interesting premise, unusual setting and great cast, this could have been really good.