Even if you meet them each day, do you really know the people in your neighbourhood?
Set in the smallest of communities outside of Wales, Tollbooth tells the story of one unassuming Toll Booth Operator (Michael Smiley) who works alone along a quiet highway. Forced to call Catrin (Annes Elwy), the local police officer, in the middle of the night, the operator spills a story which may (or may not) be true. Claiming to be a criminal on the run from the mob, he explains that word of his whereabouts has finally gotten back to those who are hunting him and that trouble is on the way.
Led by some strong work by Smiley, Tollbooth is a dark comedy that reminds us that everyone has secrets. Directed by Ryan Hooper, the film leans into the more comedic aspects of the crime world like Guy Ritchie’s Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Featuring an Elvis impersonation impersonator, a trio of triplet bandits and mobsters galore, there is a great deal happening within the script. While the film does not nearly live up to those standards in terms of writing, there’s a fun dark side to the film which makes it work well enough to enjoy.
Throughout the film, Hooper manages to weave his tale in such a way as to keep the viewer on their toes until the film’s conclusion. For instance, in many ways, he uses the film’s setting to its advantage. This is a world which feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere yet connected to everywhere. As a result, there’s an aura of innocence about the area that allows the shenanigans of its people to slip under the radar (gun), especially its toll booth operator. What’s more, Smiley imbues his character with such controlled innocence that the viewer is never fully sure if the tall tale that he tells is true or false. Is he the criminal mastermind that he claims to be? Or is he merely a man so bored with his job that he’s fabricated an alternative world?
Driving through the streets, there is a sign reminding the driver to slow down as people of died in the area. In some ways, this is a warning but it’s also a reminder that we never truly know what’s in front of us. Every day, we come across those who appear ‘normal’… yet do we really know their stories? For example, though Smiley appears to be a mild-mannered toll booth operator, he claims to command a group of ragtag criminals. Tollbooth understands that there’s a certain element of discomfort when we consider the fact that we often only see the image that others want us to see.
That being said, the film also wants to talk about what it means to move on. Grieving the death of her father, Catrin feels frozen in time. She wishes to move on from the pain but cannot let go, especially with the mystery surrounding her father’s death hanging over her head. At the same time, Smiley’s toll booth operator simply wants to live in peace at his job, despite his dark past. Choosing to live in anonymity (the character is known here only as ‘Toll Booth’), his story is well known about the town. Though they never speak of him, everyone knows that it’s best to leave him alone and give him the space that he wants. Both the Toll Booth Operator and Catrin understand that the past cannot be changed.
What’s done is done.
However, they both simply wish to make peace with their stories. While the death of Catrin’s father requires justice, Smiley’s character wants others to ignore him. In this way, there is an acknowledgement that the past cannot be changed yet moving forward requires a certain level of grace from others.
For Catrin, hope begins when people are able to remember. For Smiley’s Toll Booth Operator, hope begins when others are willing to ‘forget’.
Mixed with corruption and charm, Tollbooth ends up being worth the cost of admission. Hooper has created a world that recognizes that darkness can hide under the surface of the light, especially in unexpected places. Balanced with his eye for comedy, Hooper keeps the film interesting, even when it feels like it could veer off the road.
Tollbooth is now available on VOD.