Blending modern technology and old-school horror, “The Toll” smartly leverages the gig economy’s horrific potential to its full potential.
The Toll is a sharp nail-biter that manages to keep the viewer guessing throughout the whole ride. In it, a rideshare driver named Spencer (Max Topplin) and his passenger, Cami (Jordan Hayes), find themselves stuck on an unmarked backroad. The car is dead, they’re surrounded by woods, and no one is coming to save them. The only way out is to play a grim toll to an otherworldly entity that demands blood for passage.
The Toll is most successful when it focuses on the uncertainty of tech-based relationships. How well do we know our Uber driver? Whether they are transporting your take-out order or driving you to the airport, all you have is a face, a name, and a rating. There is always a mystery there, a discomfort that we can’t shake. This uncertainty heightens The Toll’s tension from the very first scene. The camera opens on Spencer scrolling through potential riders. He purposefully selects Cami. We’re forced to wonder why he has chosen her over the others. What are his motives and what is she stepping into when she opens the car door?
It’s this central tension that makes The Toll so successful.
There is a ton of horror happening in the film, but the focus is on the relationship between two strangers. It questions the nature of trust in a situation where there is no evidence of trustworthiness. It’s the same situation we face every time we call a ride share service — a quiet discomfort and touch of the unknown.
In addition to the intriguing interplay between the protagonists, there is the Toll Man. It’s clear that there are some similarities to the internet-born Slender Man, but the Toll Man is a far more interesting and subtle creature. However, the Toll Man himself is best imagined as a small part of the overall setting.
The Toll Man’s trap (or realm) is so simple, but so well done. The Toll lets the characters explore the weird woods where they find themselves. Cami walks down the road and finds herself back where she began. Spencer runs into the woods and finds himself coming back to the road from the opposite direction. These moments are simple but effective.
The isolated realm is inescapable and small. By isolating the characters in this place, The Toll manages to make a well-worn horror trope feel new again. Sure, the car is broken down on the side of the road. But the road and woods are isolating and claustrophobic.
The Toll man is everywhere… and nowhere.
In the midst of it all, we’re forced to wonder who we can trust.
The Toll Man holds sway over the characters and the viewers, and he manipulates us all.
There are some moments where the film’s reach exceeds its grasp. In particular, there are a few scenes toward the end of the film that introduce new characters and expand upon Spencer and Cami’s individual histories. It’s clear that these moments have significance to the narrative, but they come out of nowhere and the new character’s introductions are a bit clunky.
These scenes, though, don’t take the viewer out of the film. In the end, it all makes sense.
Overall, The Toll is a great ride. It is a mind-bender, a sharply contained story, and a truly interesting dissection of our trust in the gig economy — while also being one hell of a scary film.