What do you get when you blend together an Elvis impersonator and well-crafted political satire against the backdrop of a rural setting in Wales? You get the unexpected in Ryan Hooper’s feature length directorial debut, The Toll.
Written by Matt Redd it is a story, like the ‘Toll Booth Man’ himself (Michael Smiley), that lures you into a false sense of security as appearing to be remarkably unremarkable. You instantly get Fargo vibes but swap the distinctive tones of Minnesota for Wales when we meet local policewoman Catrin (Annes Elwy). It is a strong, subtle and at points an emotional performance from Elwy.
The story starts with our two main characters in the toll booth where Smiley is calmly about to tell the tale of the series of events that led to this particular moment with an air of smoke and mirrors.
We are then taken on a retrospective journey, of sorts, moving from past to present. The Toll handles this for the most part wonderfully though does veer to overdoing it at points.
Smiley is understated and plays deadpan well even when confronted with an Elvis impersonator, who he skilfully manipulates in a deal that was a set-up from the start. We don’t really get to know enough about the character, though there are clear signs of a questionable past and that he is somewhat a changed man. That air of mystery is intriguing but really goes nowhere so you are drawn more towards Elwy’s character.
It is a film with well-placed humour throughout alongside political as well as social commentary with obvious jibes at Brexit. It taps into the divisive times we live in where in one instance a character spouts xenophobic views but is quickly made a fool in a hilarious way.
That satire is coupled well with the playful and silly elements of the film where there’s outrage at one point surrounding a sandwich. There’s also the great pairing of Paul Kaye and Iwan Rheon whose characters Cliff & Dom bounce off each other well in their comedic exchanges that injects an element of hijinks.
Rheon channels a smidge of his maniacal Game of Thrones character, Ramsay Bolton, but does well to avoid leaning into it completely. All this while styled like Danny Zuko from Grease if he went to a rough school complete with a ridiculous shirt adding to his character.
There is clear influence from the likes of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in the way the story develops – intertwined chaos, if you will, but on a smaller scale. Even shades of Quentin Tarantino with a Spaghetti Western-like score and how certain scenes are styled.
As more and more happens the film does falter where the timeline becomes a tad askew and events unravel in an all too convenient way. The tone is generally well-balanced but towards the end there are shades of ridiculousness that seem too much of a nod to films that have been an inspiration.
This mystery thriller is laced with humour and references to some classics though suffers from a story that initially develops well but borders on the farcical when the film comes to its climax. It is nevertheless enjoyable.