“The expert in battle moves his enemies but is not moved by them” is just one of the phrases slightly misquoted by the stationary anti-hero in black comedy The Toll, the first time feature from director Ryan Andrew Hooper. An extension of his 2019 short film Ambition, the crime caper centres around an unnamed toll-booth operator (Michael Smiley) who appears to enjoy the simple things in life. His peace is shattered by various incidents occurring in and around the nearby small Welsh town, meanwhile traffic cop turned detective Catrin (Annes Elwy) is looking for answers.
Unmistakably crafted by a passionate film fan, this non-linear narrative revels in its influences and pays homage in style to the likes of Fargo, Pulp Fiction, and most notably, the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. Hooper’s man with no name is an intriguing protagonist, windswept and interesting against the bleak, blustery landscapes of Wales. There’s a lot of plot packed into a tight running time of just 82 minutes, with neatly woven storylines that come together for a tense standoff climax.
It’s definitely not the first film to mimic the Western genre in British satire; the most obvious example being Shane Meadows’ Once Upon a Time in the Midlands which toyed with the same tropes. However, there’s a slickness and self-awareness to this meticulous script, penned by Matt Redd, which keeps the writing on the right side of spoof humour.
An excellent cast come together to portray the assortment of misfits that form the community. Iwan Rheon and Paul Kaye play giddily with their amusingly caricaturish supporting parts, whilst a hearty Anne Elwy provides balance as the significant moral compass of the piece. As the leading man, Michael Smiley gives a formidable performance. Downbeat, deadpan, and dangerous, he is perfectly cast as this placid presence who, amidst the chaos, just wants to settle down with a good book and his cheese and pickle sandwich.
An impressively inventive directorial debut from Ryan Andrew Hooper, The Toll is a cunning delight which get its thrills from its own cinematic inspirations.