The Toll is a fairly effective debut feature from Welsh filmmaker Ryan Andrew Hooper who has burst onto the scene with the “first West Walian Western” ever made. The film has been in the making since 2014 but it feels relatively fresh and energetic in its construction of a cinematic atmosphere. Starring Michael Smiley as a mysterious toll booth operator who exists in the middle of nowhere, The Toll launches a delightfully whimsical, socio-cultural exploration of crime and modernity.
Structured within a non-linear narrative, The Toll presents an eclectic mixture of extremely eccentric characters ranging from an Elvis Impersonator to clout-chasing criminal triplets. At the centre of this wacky universe is Brendan (played by Smiley), a man with a mysterious past who spends most of his time reading John Edward Williams’ Stoner inside a tiny toll booth. While the novel is primarily about the inaction and monotony of life, The Toll ends up on the other end of the spectrum as a deliberate exercise in comedic subversion.
Matt Redd’s screenplay forms an integral part of the cinematic experience, curating a collection of hilarious encounters where voyeuristic expectations are confronted by the absurdity of human existence. It feels Beckettian at times, oscillating between anxiety-inducing moments of intrigue and outrageously bathetic conclusions. This is one of The Toll’s greatest achievements – a commendable inter-play between cinematic tension and black humour. Although the flow of the narrative itself is fragmented, the film’s investigation starts gaining momentum when a character from Brendan’s shady past shows up to kickstart the action.
The Toll is the result of the transposition of the western from the familiar landscapes of America to the hostile coasts of west Wales. However, it features everything the genre demands — shootouts, pictorial renditions of the surrounding environment as well as neo-western elements like self-aware depictions of violence which come across as attempts at meta-humour. There is a general deconstruction of time and the mythology of suspense, making The Toll a semi-academic incursion into the epistemology of the genre classifications.
Adrian Peckitt, who worked with Hooper and Redd on the 2018 short film Ambition, has handled the visual narrative of The Toll as well. From its mesmerising cinematography, it is evident that Hooper has borrowed inspiration from the likes of John Ford and the Coen brothers while the story hints at the influence of the McDonaghs. This has been acknowledged by the director himself who stated that “we wear our influences on our sleeves,” citing the impact of other filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino as well as Guy Ritchie.
Audiences might perceive The Toll as a re-contextualisation of films like Fargo but that is the inevitable conclusion when a filmmaker enters into a cinematic discourse with beloved masterpieces. Thankfully, there is enough there for me to claim that The Toll is its own entity. In its own way, it contributes to the modern rethinking of classic genres like the iconic western.
The Toll is in cinemas and on digital 27 August.