Director: Ryan Andrew Hooper
Writer: Matt Redd
Set in the Old West … of Wales, this darkly witty comedy thriller clearly displays many influences, yet happily maintains its own quirky voice. Centred in and around an isolated and decrepit old toll booth in Pembrokeshire, the story has Michael Smiley’s nameless toll booth operator (known only as “Toll Booth”) living a seemingly boring and pointless existence. However, his dark past soon catches up with him and it is soon revealed that his life is not simple nor his real business entirely legal, as he begins to manipulate events around him without ever leaving his drab confines.
A nameless anti-hero, desolate scenery and a score that has more than a little Ennio Morricone about it all point to obvious Western influences, and these are humorously juxtaposed with the seemingly banal and eccentric lives of the local Welsh community. Very much like Hot Fuzz did by placing a Hollywood-style action movie in a sleepy English town, The Toll mines a lot of humour from placing quirky British eccentrics in incongruous criminal situations and Spaghetti Western standoffs. There are also hints of Tarantino with a non-linear narrative (although this is nowhere near as intricate as Pulp Fiction’s) and the Coen Brothers as the local dogged female police officer (Annes Elwy) gently asks questions as carnage ensues around the corner (she even wears the same type of hat as Marge Gunderson in a far from subtle nod to Fargo). However the category that this film probably fits best into is the British gangster movie genre that was particularly popular in the wake of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels with small events building to a violent climax and several threads converge.
Smiley brings a nice, easy world-weariness to Toll Booth. The character is deliberately inscrutable and decidedly lacks any particular charm, so it’s especially impressive that Smiley manages to make the character at least somewhat relatable and sympathetic. Ostensibly the heart of the film belongs to Elwy’s Catrin who is struggling to come to terms with the death of her father as she responds to “terrorist threats” (in fact a trio of local girls robbing the local petrol station), but Matt Redd’s script seems to have little interest in emotional engagement. Instead the highlights are all grounded in the slightly surreal supporting cast including Iwan Rheon’s enthusiastic killer, Paul Kaye’s shady ambulance driver and Ioan Hefin’s blind man. Most bizarre of all is Evelyn Mok’s female Elvis impersonator crime boss and Darren Evans as her sidekick who only talks in unintelligible mumbles.
Ryan Andrew Hopper’s direction makes the most of the desolation of the landscape but is otherwise pretty unremarkable. The big climax is presented as “artistic” but looks far more like it was “under-funded”, and the entire film is frustratingly unambitious with a much better film seeming to want to break through here. As it is, the script contents its self with being quirky while not actually saying anything, which makes this an admittedly entertaining but ultimately forgettable 80 minutes that would seem right at home on TV on a Sunday night.
The Toll is in cinemas and on premium digital from 27 August from Signature Entertainment