The road less traveled makes all the difference in The Toll. When GPS randomly detours a rideshare driver and his passenger down an isolated dirt road in the dead of night, it leads them onto a seemingly inescapable patch of land, a place where a menacing supernatural force dredges up their greatest psychological traumas to wield against them. But while screenwriter Michael Nader’s directorial debut is rife with unnerving hallucinatory sequences and masked shapeshifters lurking in the dark, its greatest tension lies in the suspicion and distrust simmering between the principal characters.

Travel-weary from a late-arriving flight, Cami (Jordan Hayes) quickly gets creeped out by her socially awkward driver, Spencer (Max Topplin), who’s already cast in a suspicious light by an opening sequence in which we see him swiping through his app to decline rides for men until he ends up lingering on a photo of Cami. She needs him to haul her out to the boonies to visit her dad, and she just wants some peace and quiet while doing so. But Spencer keeps engaging her in cringey conversation, gushing about how much he enjoys having her as a passenger and ominously explaining that he’s a bow-and-arrow man because guns aren’t an honest way to hunt. So, when his GPS leads them off the highway and onto a creepy wooded road, Cami’s got her pepper spray locked and loaded, and she grows even more alarmed when the car stalls out and both their cell phones go dead.

Though it quickly becomes clear―thanks to the mysterious appearance of road-closed signs graffitied with demands to “pay the Toll Man”―that something malicious dwells in these woods, Cami feels safer hoofing through the dark in search of rescue rather than staying too close to Spencer. Of course, in true “Twilight Zone” fashion, walking in one direction ultimately only leads back to the car, a well-worn horror trope that nevertheless creates an effective atmosphere of dread early in the film, especially when paired with an unsettling sound design. While the Toll Man takes on many forms and projects his prey’s greatest fears in a Pennywise-meets-Lynchian-visual-aesthetic sort of way, he stops short of physically attacking the perhaps eternally stranded pair, seemingly intent on manipulating circumstances to stoke distrust between Cami and Spencer until they shed each other’s blood.

While it gets a lot of mileage out of its unnerving setup and compelling characters, The Toll can’t quite drive home its conclusion. The metaphysics behind the inescapable liminal space they occupy is needlessly explained by a local denizen (Rosemary Dunsmore) passing through on a tractor―at 3am—who can only communicate with them since she’d once encountered and eluded the Toll Man herself many years before. In its third act, the film also begins to rely too heavily on hallucinatory fake-outs and plot twists, though it does thankfully go easy on the jump scares. Taking the familiar and making it seem uncanny is a recipe for effective horror, and The Toll largely does have that going for it. But the film ultimately meanders down too many detours to reach a satisfying final destination.

While it gets a lot of mileage out of its unnerving setup and compelling characters, The Toll can’t quite drive home its conclusion.
55 %
Too Many Detours
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