[Review] 'The Toll' Rides on the Paranoia It Creates but Breaks Down from Too Many Mechanical Errors
Ridesharing is weird as hell...
...Think about it. You’re stuck in a compact place with a stranger, who just so happens to hold your life in their hands. You never know whether you should strike up a jovial conversation or just trade pleasant greetings. And really, how much do you know about your driver? It’s impossible to know if there’s a kind-hearted soul or prolific serial killer hiding behind their profile picture. How can you trust someone you don’t even know, especially if the worst-case scenario, like the car breaking down and the two of you becoming the playthings of an interdimensional nightmare creature, becomes a reality?
This is exactly what writer-director Michael Nader imagines in his feature directorial debut The Toll. After arriving on a late-night flight, Cami (Jordan Hayes) orders a ride to her father’s house way out in the middle of nowhere. Cami just wants to rest quietly while finishing her trip, but Spencer (Max Topplin), her driver, doesn’t seem to get it. His awkward attempts at conversation and strange behavior put Cami on edge, fueling her growing suspicions that Spencer might be something more dangerous than just a socially awkward rideshare driver.
Despite the uncomfortable situation she’s found herself in, Cami tries to quell her unease and make it through the final leg of her trip. But the two find themselves stranded after their phones and the car suddenly shut down with no explanation. Though Cami initially thinks the breakdown is all part of some sick plan Spencer’s cooked up, the two eventually learn that they’re trapped at the hands of the Toll Man, a creature who can transport unsuspecting people into a world that he controls. The Toll Man, as his name implies, expects those who pass through his roads to pay the toll, and the only payment he accepts is death. Cami and Spencer must learn to trust each other and band together to find a way to escape the Toll Man’s clutches or die trying.
The Toll is a film that challenges the characters, along with the viewer, to question what they assume about strangers and what they know about themselves. Like Cami, we are forced to wonder whether the snap judgments we make about unfamiliar people are fair and if it’s possible to trust a total stranger in a life-or-death situation. Though they don’t exactly get along, Cami and Spencer only have each other to rely on.
The Toll Man’s supernatural abilities also force us to take stock of the secrets that we keep and the effects those burdens have on us. As Cami and Spencer learn, the Toll Man has the power to see inside their heads, learn their secrets, and use those unresolved traumas against them by forcing them to see grotesque visions. Since Cami and Spencer both have traumas that have a negative impact on their ability to connect with other people, especially those of the opposite sex, The Toll pushes us to examine how our unresolved issues might shape how our relationships with other people form.
The Toll is one of those films that manages to do a lot with just a little. The cast is small, with Cami and Spencer being the only two characters on screen throughout most of the runtime. When a film is focused on an extremely limited number of characters, the actors portraying them bear a lot of the responsibility for its success, and Jordan Hayes and Max Topplin kill it. The film relies on the back-and-forth rapport that builds between Cami and Spencer to create a sense of paranoia early on, and both are convincing as characters who’ve found themselves in a terrifying situation with a stranger they neither understand nor trust. Hayes and Topplin’s performances are enough to keep any viewer engaged in the story and desperate to find out what happens next.
The Toll might be sparse on locations, taking place almost entirely on the deserted rural road the characters are trapped on and the woods surrounding it, but it doesn’t suffer from its lack of locales. If anything, the singular location of The Toll works to create a feeling of entrapment that matches what Cami and Spencer are feeling. And let’s face it, there’s something uniquely terrifying about being trapped on an isolated country road, even if there’s not a supernatural monster hiding there.
While it manages to achieve a lot within its limitations, The Toll does suffer from its small-scale production in other areas, with the most noticeable being the Toll Man himself. He spends much of the movie making Cami and Spencer see things that aren’t there, but there are only a handful of shots that show the Toll Man. Instead, The Toll relies on various disjointed visions to push the scares. When he does appear, he’s much less terrifying than one might expect a multidimensional monster who feeds on pain and death to be. The Toll is one of those cases where showing the monster manages to hamper his ability to scare.
Some of the action sequences also miss their target, especially scenes were Cami and Spencer are running down empty dirt roads with a soundtrack that’d be better suited to high-octane action flicks playing over the scene. Shaky camera shots, unconvincing running, and the mismatched music only work to hurt the tone of paranoia and fear that the rest of the film builds so well.
The Toll also suffers from some story issues with one sin that I just can’t forgive: it makes use of a deus ex machina to explain what the Toll Man and the rules of his world are, and it does it in a way that is anything but extraordinary. At one point, Lorraine (Rosemary Dunsmore), an older woman who rolls up on her trusty tractor and can see and communicate with Cami and Spencer but can’t interact with them in any other way, explains what the Toll Man is, what he wants, and what the rules of his world are. There’s no real explanation for where she came from or how she knows anything about the Toll Man, but without her appearance, Cami and Spencer would’ve been stuck in limbo, never knowing who or what they were up against.
The Toll is a film that manages to make the most of what it has and weaves an interesting tale but fails to fully deliver on its promise of otherworldly terror.
The Toll comes to VOD/Digital from Saban Films March 26th.
By Tim Beirne
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