“This had better be fucking good,” says police officer Catrin (Annes Elwy) at the beginning of Ryan Andrew Hooper’s feature debut The Toll, as she steps into the portable cabin where the Toll Booth Man (Michael Smiley) conducts his business. The latter – a dry, taciturn anonym – has been leading an equally anonymous life, quietly running the only toll booth in a small town on the Welsh coast for the last 29 years – yet now, as his past has finally caught up with him, he has some explaining to do.
Spending long hours alone in an isolated booth, our hero is an avid reader – and The Toll begins with a quote (about reading) from the novel that currently has his attention, John Edward Williams’ Stoner (1965). Yet despite being a film about storytelling, framed as the twisted tale that our hero spins for Catrin – “the chronology”, he admits, “is confusing” – its texture is decidedly more cinematic than literary. When Catrin asks in the town’s pub about Toll Booth Man’s backstory, the locals just offer her synopses of well-known blockbusters (The Shawshank Redemption, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Star Wars) as though he were more movie legend than man. Meanwhile his present predicament is a darkly comic caper of the ‘small-town clusterfuck’ subgenre familiar from, say, the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996) or John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard (2011), with a climactic oater shootout thrown in (accompanied by horns on Rael Jones’ soundtrack) to complement our antihero’s status as a Man With No Name.
As he awaits, High Noon-style, the arrival of his vengeful former boss (Julian Glover), he must also, with help from associates Dom (Iwan Rheon) and Cliff (Paul Kaye), contend with a trio of tearaways turned would-be terrorists, an Elvis impersonator (Evelyn Mok) looking to take over the Welsh criminal underworld, and three confused and angry sheep farmers – and his approach to these multiple, converging problems will combine calculation and improvisation in equal measure. The only thing predictable in all this chaos is that he will live to tell the tale. Others, though, will not be so shrewd, or so lucky.
“You might think I’m in the middle of nowhere out here,” says Smiley’s character at one point, “but really I’m in the middle of everything.” He is referring to a job that allows him to observe all this community’s comings and goings, to be the gatekeeper of its secrets, and to decide what traffic (legal or otherwise) comes in or stays out – but his words extend to the film’s ambivalent portrayal of Wales itself as a land all at once marginal and parochial, yet able to accommodate and assimilate whatever outside influences enter town. “Let’s just say I helped him relocate to the area,” the Toll Booth Man says of one “uninvited and most unwelcome” visitor (Gary Beadle) who had the misfortune to cross his barrier – and the film too absorbs many a trope borrowed from abroad into its Welsh locale.
When Matt Redd’s script is not making hilarious hay from local eccentricity, even insularity, it is ribbing English invaders (like Steve Oram‘s Mr Henry) for their superior attitudes, craven irresponsibility and general obliviousness to the harm that they cause in their new home. Here Wales is small, but central – and if our hero (not unlike one of the characters in Will Jewell’s similarly Wales-set Concrete Plans, 2020) fled to this place to hide from both his criminal history and the world, the world eventually comes looking for him anyway, without quite understanding (as he certainly does) the lay of the land. Even if we never find out what exactly he did in the past to attract such vendetta, we need see only what he does on this one long day to know everything about his questionable moral fibre, his powers of manipulation and his talent for disappearing – and if it were not for Smiley’s charming performance, we might find this rogue’s company too repellent to enjoy.
Sweet yet cynical, convoluted yet comical, witty yet wild, always punching exactly at its own weight while never staying within genre’s boundaries, The Toll is indeed fucking good.
© Anton Bitel