CW/TW: Discussion of rape culture as a source of anxiety and sexual assault.
Cami (Jordan Hayes) is not having a good day. She’s en route to see her father (James McGowan), and since her flight touches down at 2 AM due to delays, she tells her dad she’ll take a rideshare to his place instead of expecting him to pick her up. Her mood does not improve when her driver, Spencer (Max Topplin), makes awkward attempts at small talk that tend toward the sinister; he reveals that he’s a bowhunter and, when asked what he hunts, includes “humans” on the list as a bad joke. Or is it? Cami’s suspicions are further aroused when Spencer attempts to take a turn onto a rural road that Cami doesn’t recognize, and she is not assuaged to see that the turn is indicated on the rideshare app’s navigation screen. As their path takes them through a deeply wooded area, Spencer’s car suddenly breaks down, stranding the two of them alone . . .
A few years ago, I looked up the reader reviews for Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book that I read on a flight in 2014, beginning my trip to New York with a good, hearty cry as the plane touched down at JFK. I was surprised by the negative reviews of it, until I dug a little deeper and saw that most of them were centered around the book’s length (178 pages) versus its cost (MSRP of $16.95 at the time). I had picked it up at the airport on my way out, so I knew exactly how much I was getting and at what cost, but it struck me as an immature (and grossly capitalistic) way to evaluate a piece of art. In fairness, during my more economically insecure (and less mature) days, I sometimes was affected by the same kind of thinking: “How can [band] charge full price for an EP that’s only 8 tracks?!” was a thought that passed through my brain more than once, and it fills me with shame to look back on it. It’s a toxic way of thinking, and from time to time I still have to remind myself of this, especially when it comes to movies. When I was a kid, movies (and of course books) were the only way I could escape an unhappy home environment for a little while, and when I was allowed to rent something from our local video store or borrow only one tape from the library, I felt cheated when it ended up being shorter than I expected. The anguish of wasting the one rental I was allowed that month in 1996 on a 45 minute tape of Carrotblanca that contained shorts I had already seen irrevocably changed my interaction with movies for the rest of my life; I still can’t pick up any form of physical media without immediately checking the run-time before I look at anything else. To me, the purported ongoing “bloat” of films to lengths greater than three hours isn’t a turnoff the way that it is for others; if anything, every time I see that a film is 150+ minutes, my interest is piqued like that Stan Kelly image that became a meme. This is decidedly not how Swampflix at large operates, where the “tight ninety” (™ Alli) is the preferred vision.
All of that is (as is my wont) a needlessly and pointlessly indulgent digression and lead-in to the fact that I loved this 80 minute(!) thriller. Like Lucky, The Toll is a recent thriller that taps into —and unfortunately necessary—anxieties about existing in public spaces as a woman. In this month alone, my best friend expressed her concerns about parking in a pay garage so that we could meet her family downtown to watch the Independence Day fireworks; days later, she mentioned how fraught with danger it would have been for her to take the bus alone instead, and I have seen enough with my own eyes to know that her hesitancy is valid. Even without the benefit of hearing about the day to day horrors from countless first and secondary sources, as a man, I know how other men talk about women when they’re not around, and it’s terrifying. It’s easy to immediately sympathize and empathize with Cami, trapped alone in the woods with a stranger, even before things get “really” scary.
Where The Toll plays with expectations is in what happens after the breakdown, which coincides with Spencer’s phone glitching and Cami’s dying. The audience watched as Spencer selected Cami specifically from a list of riders and this, along with our knowledge about the general shitshow that is patriarchal entitlement, primes us for where this story is presumably headed. However, once the characters are stuck in the woods, as they discover more and more reasons to mistrust one another, the audience is tipped off that something equally as pernicious but more ethereal is afoot. After several false scares, Cami opts to take off on foot towards the main road and leave Spencer behind, but discovers that there are now warning signs in the road that would prevent a vehicle from passing, warning of a road closure and graffiti’d with small notes and smiley faces that warn of the need to pay a toll of some kind. She soldiers on, and although she stays on the path, she finds herself back where she started, with one hiccup: she started walking away from Spencer back towards the main road from which they came, but she approaches him from the front, as if coming from deeper in the dark, dark woods. Spencer makes his own attempt to leave, but is likewise thwarted; in a beautifully underlit scene, he leaves the road altogether and sets off into the woods at a perpendicular angle, only to re-emerge from the forest onto the road from the opposite side.
Other messages begin to appear as well. A warning about “The Toll Man” appears, written in the dust on Spencer’s back windshield. Cami discovers a cache of photos of herself in Spencer’s car, leading her to accuse him of stalking her and orchestrating the evening’s events, while he in turn is dumbfounded by this turn of events and accuses her of planting them; while neither are looking, the pictures disappear as suddenly as they appeared, as if they never existed in the first place. Assuming that someone in the woods is harassing them (The Strangers is mentioned), the two prepare to defend themselves, but they are eventually discovered by an older woman (Canadian treasure Rosemary Dunsmore) on a tractor, who offers to help them. When they relate their experiences, however, she realizes with horror that she will be unable to assist. “It’s been a long time; I’d forgot,” she says. “I’m not where you are. We’re looking at each other like we’re close, but you’re someplace else. You’re in his place. The Toll Man.” Like a malevolent fae, The Toll Man traps wayward travelers who have the scent of death if they should be unlucky enough to find their way onto his road; someone with suicidal ideation or bound for an accident is then diverted into his realm so that he can extract his toll: death.
This has the potential to be more goofy than scary (The Bye Bye Man, anyone?), but in spite of its possible pitfalls, this one manages to work. I’ve recently been watching The X-Files for the first time, and although I know it’s a huge part of the show’s iconic imagery, every time Mulder and Scully go into the woods with their giant flashlights that are all-but-unnecessary simply because of how brightly backlit the trees are, I have to stifle a laugh (while watching the pilot, I turned to my best friend and almost shouted “Is that supposed to be moonlight?!”). That bled into the pop culture landscape a lot, and I’m pleased to say that the darkness that surrounds Spencer and Cami definitively looks like real, arboreal darkness. Their flashlight barely illuminates the first row of trees closest to them, and beyond that lies nothing but dread, inky blackness. The creepiness of it lingers, even after the Toll Man shepherds them away from the car and toward an isolated house, which contains other illusions that aim to warp their perceptions of reality, including images of Spencer’s dead mother (Jana Peck), who taunts her son with the secrets that she took with her to the grave when she killed herself. When the duo is separated, Cami is also confronted with images from her past; a canopy bed appears in the woods, where a younger version of herself is terrified after being assaulted by an “upstanding” young man (Thomas L. Colford); present-day Cami comforts her, but past Cami is in her head, and knows that although the wound is gone, the scar persists. A similar blending of indoor past and outdoor present was part of the visual language in The Ritual, and I loved it there as I do here. There’s something deeply uncanny about it, and as Cami is hounded by visions of the people who were present in the aftermath of her assault (very similarly to Lucky, although no one sings here), the impossible largeness of the darkness just beyond the treeline merges with the impossibly large weight of her past, while also descending on her in a way that can only be described as claustrophobic.
The ending comes at the viewer fast, and I won’t spoil the conclusion here other than to say that the circle is fully closed. What we learn in those final ten minutes paints a new picture of everything that came before it, and this is the first film of 2021 that has made me feel like I’m already ready to rewatch it and see what I missed the first time. Although it feels like a Shudder release, it’s currently only available for rental or purchase, but when it comes to streaming, make sure to check it out.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond