Review: 'The Toll' (2021) Dir. Ryan Andrew Hooper
A small scale production in Wales fuses the criminal threads of a Coens or Tarantino film - black comedy, mystery, quirky characters and multiple stories converging into one focal point...
Isolated in the Welsh countryside, a toll booth operator (Smiley) lives a very simple, quiet life and keeps himself to himself. There's just one problem; he has a criminal past, and is wanted by some of his former colleagues who just happen to come across him one day and call it in.
Aided by his small-time crook friends Dom (Rheon), Cliff (Kaye) and Dixie (Mok), the operator does his best to keep his dark past at arms length, without alerting the suspicion of local police officer Catrin (Elwy) from the neighbouring village.
Catrin meanders along on small crime calls, longing for something a little more exciting. She gets the answer to her prayers when the toll booth becomes the focus point of a major crime, and it's a battle of wits to work out make sure this hot case is either cracked or covered up...
It will surprise you how much crime can revolve around a small-town toll booth in rural Wales that only charges 40p to pass through. BAFTA nominated Director Ryan Andrew Hooper makes his feature debut here championing his home country of Wales, injecting black comedy and his own influence from the crime genre for this simple, sinister tale.
You've got a line-up of shady types all who have their own motives and relationships forged around our nameless toll booth operator, played with simmering menace by Irish gem Michael Smiley. Alongside him we have bike rider Iwan Rheon and Paul Kaye's bearded dogger who drives an ambulance, both helping with the cleanups. They're a great group of actors who play their roles straight down the line, and while we don't really know much about them, it's easy to take them for face value and get lost in their unique ways of helping keep the law one step behind in their dodgy criminal operations.
Opposite them is bored police officer Annes Elwy who finds a slowly growing amount of criminal doings, all revolving around said toll booth and Smiley's placid, cool as a cucumber operator. Elwy is the heart to this film and is a real Welsh starlet, doing her best John Nettles in piecing together the crime happening under her nose and unlocking the mystery that seems to be clouding her small village.
It's got the humour of 'Gavin & Stacey', the small-town mystery of 'Midsomer Murders' and the criminal content of 'Reservoir Dogs' - a rather unique combination!
A van load of eye pads is brought for a major deal and the humour is laid bare. The stash is stolen medical eye pads, for eyes. Not those little computer things from Apple. And this failed deal across the border is overseen by two wannabe criminals; Elvis tribute singer Evelyn Mok and mute T.A squaddie Darren Evans. Following that, an all-girl gang of wannabe criminals holds up the booth for £1.20, a knock-off watch and a cheese and pickle sandwich. But that leads to far darker consequences.
It's this style of quirky comedy that is all played straight and never silly, and often works well without being too on the nose. It's thanks to the straight playing of our comedic cast, not relying on daft jokes or slapstick. The black comedy comes from our characters being quite sinister at times, slightly put down-upon and embodying fearsome Welsh gangsters, criminals and wheeler-dealers. We are reminded that there is always consequence to crime, no matter how big or small the act - this is where the shades of twisty, turny crime narratives come into play with a number of characters on their own arc brought together around one central plot point or location.
Make no mistake, this isn't a soft and gentle comedy crime caper. It's got violence and enough curse words to make Tarantino proud. The black humour goes hand in hand with this style of film-making. Being so simple in execution set around a quaint toll booth and the neighbouring village, it all adds to the Welsh charm revolving around our criminal Smiley. The story doesn't run aground with the simple premise, and moves along at a fair pace with a good selection of characters in the mix heading to the same junction for the same bloody climax, with screen veteran Julian Glover the don behind it all.
Some beautiful locations are used, again championing the homeland of our director to prove you don't need Hollywood expense or sheen to make something short, simple and entertaining as this when presented by a cast and crew who know just what they are doing.
'The Toll' is a strong feature debut from Ryan Andrew Hooper that showcases not just a witty story, but also a great lead performance by Smiley against the backdrop of the beautiful (but sinister!) Welsh countryside.
'The Toll' is a co-production between British Film Institute (BFI), Fields Park Media Partners, Great Point Media, S4C and Western Edge Pictures