Disclaimer: This film was previewed before the intended premiere and cancellation of SXSW 2020.
The horror genre has found a new awakening in recent years, the jump scares of old replaced with deep societal relevancy hidden beneath the tension and fear. There is a newfound excitement as each has been released, several becoming instant classics in their own right. Still, there are those who buckle under the increasing pressure to deliver, leaving many disgusted with their money spent and confusion left in its wake. With The Toll, audiences will not have to fear the toll they paid.
The Toll, from writer and director Michael Nadar, is the latest to find success in the horror genre, embracing the relevancy of today while honoring the tensions of the past. There is a classic horror essence that flows throughout, the film relying heavily on tension building and quietly luring audiences in. With a fairly limited setting, limited cast, yet a resonating punch of its own, The Toll is not one to be missed.
Cami (Jordan Hayes) has had a long night. A delayed flight and still 45 minutes to go until her final decision, she ops to finish the remainder of her journey utilizing the local rideshare. Though as audiences have already been privy too, her driver Spencer (Max Topplin) is definitely strange. As he selects his rider, he swipes past all the male requests, finally settling on Cami. As they make their way, his topics of conversation notably make Cami uneasy and will have audiences awkwardly squirming as well. “I really like your profile picture”, “You’re a really great passenger”, and “There are a lot of creepy people out there” are instantly foreboding. As he makes a turn on what Cami thinks is the wrong road, he seems to solidify the creep factor – that is until his phone suddenly goes out and they almost run over a masked man in the road.
Audiences join Cami and Spencer as they try to catch their breath and understanding of what just happened. The reprieve lasts only a moment, as the tensions slowly begin to build, Cami and Spencer the equivalent of frogs in a pot of water, the temperature slowly turned up, the danger around them becoming unknowingly and increasingly more dangerous around them. As they try to figure out which of them is behind the strange occurrences that continue, they find their growing nightmare will not end until a debt has been paid.
Bringing horror to life
With new horror comes new technology. For The Toll, rideshare drivers become its terrifying catalyst. There has always been a concern on the safety of passengers who utilize Uber and Lyft, what could happen if someone had ill intentions towards its patrons? Here, it is utilized to build tension and create the atmosphere for the film. From the opening scene, The Toll finds success in this utilization, one that carries strong throughout the film as its story evolves and takes shape.
I have to commend The Toll on its ability to create and maintain this tension. The moment things happened, I found myself jumping out of my computer chair, hands slamming on the desk as I attempted to watch at work the screener I had been provided. You can not look away though. This is not a film you pause and come back to later. In a tight 78 minutes, The Toll takes is viewers on a wild rollercoaster ride – and it won’t let go until the end.
There are moments though you will find yourself questioning some of the character’s decision – I mean who goes to sleep in a rideshare? While many of these decisions were made for atmosphere and to condense time, they are moments that unfortunately you will remember once the film is over, dampening the film’s final effect ever so slightly.
There is more than what meets the eye
This is the second film for SXSW 2020 I’ve seen this year that tackles the continuous loops we find ourselves in. While Drunk Bus looks at the unending loop of monotony, The Toll finds its message in the dark loop of depression, mental health and victim-blaming. While the film remains tightly compact in its run time, its messages are given a full breath of time to be examined and understood. For many, depression is a perpetual loop, one with its highs and its lows.
Every day, there are inner demons that need to be battled, that need to be warded off. There is a toll individuals pay to themselves, yet a toll that is taken. Unfortunately, many times this is battle that must be faced alone. Others can not join on the same plane, can not meet the level of mental health and truly understand what each individual is feeling and experiencing. You can extend a hand outward, but they may not always be able to take it.
In a #MeToo world, there is also an unending loop of victim-blaming of those who fall victim to sexual assault and harassment. While there is a belief we have advanced, there is still a long way to go. The Toll gives a moment to display the price victims pay when they come forward to accuse and even face their assailants. While the actions of others may be soothing, words can tell a whole different story. “If” becomes the condescending vernacular, instantly disregarding victims, silencing and even harming. The Toll punches hard this idea of victim-blaming and the need to break the loop, the need for us to change not only our perspectives but the means of communication we use. It’s a pungent message, and The Toll tackles it brilliantly.
Conclusion: The Toll
Sign me up for whatever writer and director Michael Nadar does next. I was engrossed in The Toll and everything it had to offer. With its deeply rich messaging and intense showcase of tension, this is definitely a film to add to your must-see list.
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.