Toll Man – his name is actually Brendan but the locals all know him as Toll Man – mans a toll booth in a remote part of Wales. He’s been at it for thirty years or more and his life seems dull and dreary. One eventful day, two things happen. First, a flashily-dressed bloke in a flash car pulls up, asking which of the roads beyond the toll booth leads to the ferry to Ireland. When Toll Man shows his face the driver recognizes him as a fellow crim who disappeared decades ago after doing the dirty on the rest of the gang, headed by a man called Magnus. The driver calls Magnus to report gleefully that he’s tracked down the rat they’ve been hunting all these years, and it’s payback time.
Secondly, a trio of young girls comes by and robs Brendan of everything of value he’s got, which isn’t much: one pound 20p in takings, his watch and a plastic-wrapped sandwich. He immediately calls unseen associates to ‘instruct’, not ‘request’ – he’s quite specific about that – them that he wants recompense. He may have been lying low but it seems he hasn’t been keeping his nose clean.
Meanwhile, pretty young policewoman Catrin, stationed in the same godforsaken part of the country, monitors traffic on this toll road. There is so little of it that her face bursts into a smile when a regular customer – a bloke on a bike – passes by and they exchange friendly greetings. She’s obviously a goodie, not only because of her smile but also the fact that she’s carrying her father’s ashes around with her in the police car. Dad was the victim of an unsolved hit-and-run some years earlier.
This foul deed has not been avenged – yet. Other players enter the action: a crazy duo of crims-for-hire, a blind man called Pops, a young fellow on a motorbike who spits a lot, the gun-totin’ father of the three girls and sundry quirky townspeople who all have different theories about Toll Man and his mysterious past.
Catrin is summoned to deal with reports of a ‘terrorist’ incident on the toll road and the scene is set for some major mayhem. It starts when one of Brendan’s dodgy associates turns up in a van behind the fancy car while the flash guy is still taunting him. Uh oh.
The plot then unfolds in short flashbacks to the events of the day, anchored around a core scene in which Brendan invites Catrin to sit down and listen to the long story he has to tell about why things stand as they do at the end of it, when darkness has fallen.
It’s inventive storytelling and as the flashback scenes replay with a bit more detail each time, the sequence of events becomes clear. What isn’t always clear is what the characters are saying. The Toll is steeped in Welshness and sometimes the accents are hard to follow. There’s an intermittently amusing Welsh vs Anglos vibe running through the story and when occasionally some of the locals slip into Welsh it’s a relief to be able to read the subtitles.
There’s a lot of quirkiness in this movie – too much, really. The ambulance driver – Cliff – wears a novelty hat and when not responding to Brendan’s beck and call sits parked up and masturbating in his van, which is marked as an ambulance. The three girls are identical triplets bent on Instagram celebrity through a life of crime. They get about in kooky outfits in an old bomb constantly blasting that annoying Colonel Bogey ringtone on the horn. The crims-for-hire are an overweight Asian Elvis impersonator and her diminutive offsider who whoops insanely at the prospect of action and whose impenetrable speech impediment only she can understand. There’s a joke at their expense about the confusion of ‘ipads’ with ‘eye-pads’, but it’s too contrived and silly to be plausible, even for these dimwits.
There’s a rough correlation here between a character’s level of quirkiness and his or her likelihood of getting bumped off. It’s as though having some kind of disreputable quirk means your death can be treated with flippancy. I know this kind of thing is par for the course in this genre – darkly comic gangster capers a la Guy Ritchie or Tarantino or the Coen brothers – but my movie-going companions and I were of one mind that The Toll didn’t quite pull it off.
We all thought ‘Guy Ritchie wannabe’. But if you’re going to make a cartoonish heist/caper movie in that mold you need to get the tone right. You can’t treat just one character’s backstory as tragedy and the rest as farce, as is done here with the sub-plot about Catrin’s father.
The Toll’s publicity describes it as ‘a darkly comic thriller in the tradition of Fargo’. The comparison holds water only in that Catrin is rather like Marge Gunnerson – the endearingly vulnerable honest cop who’s tougher than she looks. One online reviewer put it this way: ‘You know how people try to replicate the Coens’ approach to character and everyone just turns out really annoying?’ You could substitute ‘Tarantino’ for the Coens and that would be fair comment too.
Otherwise The Toll offers nothing new and fresh to the formula except its Welshness, which probably tips it over into the category of Worth a Look.