Director: Ryan Andrew Hooper
Writer: Matt Redd
Cast: Michael Smiley, Annes Elwy, Iwan Rheon, Gary Beadle, Paul Kaye, Evelyn Mok, Steve Oram, Julian Glover, Gwyneth Keyworth
Producers: Vaughan Sivell, Mark Hopkins
Music: Rael Jones
Cinematography: Adrian Peckitt
Editor: John Richards
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 83mins
What’s the story: On the Pembrokeshire border, the past catches up with an unassuming toll booth operator (Smiley). While awaiting angry figures from his past, he enlists the help of local ne’er-do-wells and oddballs, as village police officer Catrin (Elwy) grows increasingly suspicious.
What’s the verdict: Director Ryan Andrew Hooper and writer Matt Redd’s exuberant, funny debut wears its influences proudly. The fractured narrative is pure Tarantino, eccentric locals arrive from Coensville, and the Western relocated to rural Wales recalls John Michael McDonagh’s antics over in Ireland with The Guard.
But, The Toll is far more than a flavourless Lock, Stock-esque pastiche of other cinematic achievements. Over 83 disciplined minutes it brims with story invention, affecting yet no-nonsense character development, and genuine shocks and surprises.
Smiley is on Kill List top form as the nameless toll booth operator. Seemingly exposed in his nondescript portacabin on a windswept stretch of nowhere, he is unassuming and typically nose deep in a book. Currently, John Williams’ Stoner, the at-first-glance-appropriate 1965 novel of a life unlived.
Yet, when the past comes calling, ‘Toll Booth Man’ has surprises in store for a consciously High Noon-alike climax. What makes all this so enjoyable is the filmmakers’ visible love of telling their story (and stories within stories), and how adeptly they populate it with memorable characters.
A female Asian-American Elvis impersonator, rampaging triplets, or disgruntled sheep farmers risk being dial-a-quirk stock figures. But, Redd provides them with sparky, punchy dialogue, and Hooper is as good at eliciting rounded performances as he is framing widescreen compositions of Welsh pubs and country lanes.
Political swipes about Brexit and English entitlement (embodied in Steve Oram’s unthinkingly obnoxious shop owner) are deft and avoid sledgehammer sermonising. With ‘Toll Booth Man’ having a whiff of sulfur about him, and his border at times demarcating life and death, we suspect mythological stuff is also here if you want it.
Laughs are plentiful, but sometimes replaced by gasps. As one character eloquently puts it, “Shit just got fucking dark, boy.”
As a canny copper patiently putting the pieces together, while dealing with recent tragedy, the impressive Elwy provides the film’s heart. That Smiley’s character reveals his hand to her early in the tricksy narrative does nothing to devalue Elwy’s Catrin, and instead delivers a satisfying emotional grace note.
Gary Beadle, Iwan Rheon, Paul Kaye, Gwyneth Keyworth (playing all three of those triplets), Evelyn Mok (as the Elvis impersonator), and Julian Glover fill out a quality supporting cast.
An irresistibly clever, funny comedy-thriller that ironically never takes its toll, roll on the next Hooper/Redd outing.