The Toll, 2021.
Directed by Ryan Andrew Hooper
Starring Michael Smiley, Annes Elwy, Iwan Rheon, Dewi Morris, Evelyn Mok, Steve Oram, and Julian Glover.
After a chance encounter with an old enemy, a toll booth operator and master criminal awaits a violent fate approaching his quiet, rural Welsh post.
At what point does homage become spoof? In Ryan Andrew Hooper’s first feature as a director, the long list of cinematic influences is totally clear. Centring on a toll booth operator with a mysterious, deadly past threatening to catch up with him, The Toll plays like a Welsh western, though to narrow the film to any one genre would do it a disservice. Then again, if a movie is more a pastiche than anything original, should it be celebrated, or even enjoyed, so enthusiastically?
Listing all the influences would take considerable time, but suffice to say most play to the film’s overall strength. In particular, the aforementioned western theme strikes delightfully – just like the sheriff in High Noon, Michael Smiley’s toll booth operator waits for the imminent violence to arrive in his peaceful domain. The large cast of characters and the crime setting is reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s work. Everyone introduced is strangely connected to one another, and through coincidence and circumstance, they will all inevitably be drawn together for the climax. These facets of the film, though hardly subtle, combine in a satisfying way, and there’s enough intrigue and comedy hardwired into the plot to hold your attention.
Taking a step back from the surface level impression made by Hooper’s film, deep cracks can be spotted. The character intentions, particularly those of narrative facilitator Catrin, are thin, and overstated in an effort to prove they exist at all. Catrin’s grief and desperation for closure are the only aspects to her character, and though her powerlessness is an effective running gag, it feels almost like if she were cut out of the film it wouldn’t make much difference. A host of colourful side characters allow for some great performances – particularly from Iwan Rheon and Evelyn Mok – but none of them seem more than sketches of real people. They exhibit identifying ticks, but lack real depth and full personalities. Even Smiley – who captivates in his silence – seems to struggle with a lack of substance; the toll booth operator’s all-encompassing drive to survive leaves a dissatisfying amount to the imagination.
Hooper and writer Matt Redd have succeeded in creating a wonderfully rural world for this story to take place in, and the comedy is often derived from defying your expectations about sleepy town life. After all, the eponymous toll charged only costs 30p to cross the barrier. Though it may be a little hard to follow, Redd’s structuring is quite ingenious too – following chapters and certain characters for a time before switching, rather than telling the story in a linear fashion. All of which combines to be quite a refreshing take on an over-saturated genre, and largely quite an enjoyable movie.
In a way, it’s not much different from one of the paintball episodes of the show Community, or a Blue Harvest episode of Family Guy. But then again, as a result of the respect Redd and Hooper give to the films they are paying tribute to, The Toll veers away from spoof. It’s harmless homage to great cinema of the past, and worth a watch even if you don’t get the references.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★