Film Review – Tollbooth
On its surface, Tollbooth (2021) has a lot going for it. Written by Matt Redd and directed by Ryan Andrew Hooper (in their feature-length debuts), this is a comedic crime thriller set in an interesting location with several colorful characters. All the participants operate in their own separate little stories and converge in a grand standoff. The potential for this to be a fun romp was certainly there, but sadly that potential was never fulfilled. The story just never gets going – this felt like an hour and half worth of setup that doesn’t pay off in a satisfying way. It may know the rhythms of a crime caper, but the notes are slightly off.
Fans of early Guy Ritchie will notice familiar traits here, in how a large cast all get caught up in a plot full of twists and turns. Inspiration also seems to be drawn from the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996) with its rural setting and quirky, off-beat tone. These parallels are commendable, and the fact that the film draws these comparisons shows that it has notable qualities. But that’s about where things end. Once we dig deeper, we find that there isn’t much going on. Despite a few interesting character stories, everything operates in neutral. We wait for the tension will escalate, but it never really does. It’s as though the plot, pacing, and action all move in neutral.
The setting makes for one the most interesting aspects. We are brought to the vast Welsh countryside, where grassy hills stretch out into the horizon. The environment appears constantly damp, with gusts of strong wind making its presence known. Although this is not classified as a Western, the remoteness does have a Western-like vibe. This notion is further supported with Rael Jones’ music, which evokes classical Spaghetti Western themes. Outside of a long highway and a few scattered buildings and villages, the locale is closed off to the rest of society – a perfect place for crooks and criminals to do business.
There are two major stories. The first involves small town police officer Catrin (Annes Elwy). Catrin is a good honest cop whose untimely loss of her father weighs heavily on her mind. She’s so distraught by her father’s passing that she carries his ashes next to her when she drives out on patrol. But her heartache must be pushed to the side as she discovers some strange occurrences around town. Some questionable characters start showing up, including identical triples (Gwyneth Keyworth) riding around in masks robbing convenience stores. As Catrin goes further into her investigation, clues continuously point toward a man working alone at a tollbooth on the outskirts of town. Why is this guy – who goes about his business quietly and unremarkably – suddenly the center of attention? What is he hiding?
The man in the tollbooth (Michael Smiley) compromises the second major storyline. Obviously, the man – credited simply as “Tollbooth” – is more than what he lets on. We learn right away that Tollbooth has a had a criminal past and has spent nearly the last thirty years hiding in Wales. It’s not until a fateful encounter with a past associate (Gary Beadle) does Tollbooth get spotted. His arc then becomes a ticking clock situation, as he learns that crime boss Magnus (Julian Glover) is making his way to him within certain deadly intentions. But instead of running, Tollbooth being prepping. He recruits a pair of muscle men (Iwan Rheon, Paul Kaye) and strikes a deal with an obsessed Elvis fan (Evelyn Mok) and her ex-military sidekick (Darren Evans) to help him out if things get messy.
These are a lot of moving parts, with the production taking nearly the entire runtime to arrange all the pieces in place for the explosive finale. But the way in which events unfold is too methodical. There isn’t a sense of drive or urgency. Nobody moves with purpose; the stakes aren’t solidified well enough for us to be invested with what happens. Tollbooth’s past is shrouded in such mystery and ambiguity that I found myself not caring what happens to him. Was he a family man forced to make terrible choices and go on the run? Is a bad guy who is simply waiting for a reason to get back in the game? Did he go into a hiding to get out of the criminal world or is it all a front for him to remain undetected? These are questions that aren’t fully addressed. Tollbooth is an impenetrable enigma. If it weren’t for Catrin’s earnest, well-intentioned presence, there wouldn’t a person here that we can attach to. And yet Catrin’s involvement is held at arm’s length – she isn’t so much a participant as she is a bystander.
Although Tollbooth did not work for me, there was enough skill on display that I wouldn’t mind seeing what Ryan Andrew Hooper and Matt Redd do in the future. There is craft and style here, even if the overall result left much to be desired. I’d consider this more of a warmup – it may not be a great crime picture, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the duo end up making one sooner rather than later.