The Toll gives a concise and entertaining experience bolstered by dry humor and an engaging plot, all while wearing its influences on its sleeve.
As is common with the indie films I review for Loud and Clear, here we are presented with both a director and a screenwriter making their respective feature-length debuts. This time around it’s director Ryan Andrew Hooper, a Welsh filmmaker who has been making shorts since 2008, and screenwriter Matt Redd, a fellow Welshman who has been active since 2012. Since their respective filmographies aren’t a page long like more established names, I had no idea what to expect from The Toll, especially considering that, during my preliminary research, I got this movie confused with another film called The Toll which was also released around the same time. That initial confusion aside, I’m delighted to report and Hooper and Redd’s first feature-length effort is excellent!
The Toll follows a nameless toll booth operator (Michael Smiley) revealing to an idealistic cop, Catrin, (Annes Elwy) how his past has finally caught up to him, disrupting his facade of an unexceptional life in rural Wales.
The Toll’s greatest accomplishment is simply how much it is able to squeeze into eighty minutes of runtime without having any of it feeling forced or compressed, all while telling a satisfying narrative. It opens with Catrin being called in by the toll booth operator, and the story is told through a series of flashbacks. The film utilizes some well-implemented non-linear storytelling, revisiting certain events from different perspectives, recontextualizing them. Throughout, The Toll will hithold just enough information to keep you invested, but not so much that you get lost.
Another place where The Toll shines is in its characterization: each character, even minor ones, is given enough personality and background where even if you don’t get to know them particularly well, they all leave an impression on you. You really feel the sense of community built into these characters’ lives, and how that outward bliss begins to unravel as Catrin begins to dig for answers.
The Toll is a great film for fans of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, because their respective influences can be seen throughout the whole thing: a quirky character-driven crime drama? Check. Eccentric characters who wholly embrace pop culture? Check. Strong dialogue where entertaining witticisms regarding the mundane are mixed with just the right amount of dry humor? Check. Sequences of violence that are highly stylized? Check. A folky, acoustic guitar-driven soundtrack? Check. The Toll certainly celebrates the filmmakers who’ve strongly influenced this movie as well as countless others, but it still retains a strong and distinctive identity without coming across as derivative. The Toll is like a Welsh Reservoir Dogs-meets-Fargo, and it pulls it off very well.
Around this point in the review is when I usually write about my critiques and the pitfalls of a particular film. The Toll has given me very little to talk about in this respect, because I believe it to be the best version of itself that it can be; I can’t think of any major issues with it. One barrier for some viewers could be the dialects: most of the characters are easily discernible, but others may be difficult to understand without subtitles. One of these incomprehensible characters is played for laughs, but the others just have thick Welsh accents which may be difficult for folks unaccustomed to those timbres and colloquialisms.
I suppose another fault would be the special effects. Luckily, moments involving them are few and far between, but they have a tendency to take you out of the viewing experience. For example, there’s a shot where someone fires a gun into a tree during a chase, and the gunshot on the tree was clearly added by a computer in post production. I have no idea what sort of budget this film had or what the production was like, but in an otherwise well-made movie, a clearly fake gunshot feels disappointingly amateurish.
The Toll is ultimately a fun ride, striking that great balance between gravity and humor, implementing just enough stylization to keep the film interesting and to give it its own distinct voice without delving too deeply into camp. This gets an easy recommendation from me, and I look forward to seeing what Hooper and Redd do next.
The Toll premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival on 25-28 February, 2021. The film will be released by Signature Entertainment on Digital Platforms in the UK on 27th August, 2021.
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