In the past handful of years, the idea of using a rideshare service to get around has become extremely commonplace. It’s something most of us don’t even think twice before doing any more. Though, we are, ostensibly, getting a ride from a total stranger. What do we know about these people? Absolutely nothing! And that is at the very heart of the new horror flickThe Toll.
Director Michael Nader centers The Toll on Cami (Jordan Hayes), who is exhausted and orders a rideshare late at night from the airport. Her driver, Spencer (Max Topplin) is the awkward and unsettling type, as she quickly comes to discover on the way to her dad’s place in the middle of nowhere. As Spencer’s strange nature becomes increasingly prevalent, Cami’s suspicions grow as well. Things dramatically escalate when the car breaks down on a secluded road, and they both come to find they’re not alone. Following a series of strange and escalatingly aggressive occurrences, Cami and Spencer come to find that they have come across a mysterious entity known as the Toll Man. If either of them wants to survive, they must pay the toll, which results in tension and a violent fight for their lives.
This is one of the titles that was supposed to play at SXSW in its Midnighters section, something I look forward to every year. Unfortunately, SXSW was canceled this year due to the coronavirus. The Toll is one that caught my eye ahead of the festival and I had been truly looking forward to it. I liked the premise. I liked the promo imagery I had seen. But, for me at least, after seeing it, the movie has landed squarely the “meh” camp, leaving me with more questions than answers. An uncertain feeling.
Have you ever just wanted to like something more than you actually like it? Maybe you have that friend who is a serious gym rat. You see how much it enriches their life and you want to find that same pleasure in it, but every single time you go to the gym you find yourself just wanting it to be over? That’s the best way to describe The Toll for me. I love the ideas at play here. Ridesharing is such a bizarre thing. It’s an example of the trust we must place in the world around us, and how fragile that all can be. It’s a house of cards. Sure, Uber and Lyft have systems in place to keep tabs on their drivers, but we’re still getting in cars with strangers who could be anyone outside the confines of that agreement to get you from point A to point B. We make small talk. Pass the time. But it’s still a mystery person behind that wheel.
The idea of taking everyone’s worst rideshare nightmare, a not-all-together-comforting presence tasked with giving you that ride, and putting the two in a bad situation, leading one another to question motives and point fingers, all while learning seemingly damning information about each other, seems ripe for the picking. Throw in a rad-sounding figure like the Toll Man out in the middle of nowhere on a deserted road at night and all of the disparate pieces that could make for a satisfying horror dish are there. I wanted to like that dish. I truly did.
Michael Nader’s approach, for my tastes, just couldn’t bring this all together in a way that added up to maximize the premise. The acting is a little wooden at times, which is particularly problematic in a movie like this. We are largely following two people for the duration, so those characters truly need to work to hook the viewer in. A lack of chemistry between the two people guiding us to this movie’s MacGuffin hampers the experience.
The whole thing, as is, feels stretched impossibly thin. Many of the ideas that I really liked, on paper, feel like they perhaps would have been more effective, on a personal level, if condensed into a short. To steal a line from Chris Griffin from Family Guy, I got an undeniable sense of “Where is the chase and how do I cut to it?” The somewhat nebulous approach to some of the movie’s themes and ideas ends up getting muddied in the shuffle as a result of the slow, I don’t want to say burn. Perhaps smolder? To compare it to something, I would say it boils down to a Blair Witch vibe, just without the haphazard intensity and compelling mystery.
I detest being negative when it comes to discussing movies. I like to like things. My goal is always to try and guide people to a thing who might enjoy it. Even when it maybe doesn’t align with my sensibilities as a viewer. That said, I’ll be honest, it’s tough for me to see the other side of the fence on this one. I would opt not to pay the Toll Man and go the long way around on this ride.
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