By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Jordan Hayes and Max Topplin
Written and directed by Michael Nader
4 AM Films
Originally slated as a SXSW premiere for this past weekend, writer and first-time feature director Michael Nader’s THE TOLL instead had a virtual premiere last night. It proves to be well-suited both as a calling-card festival attraction and for late-night viewing at home, demonstrating Nader’s knack for building tension out of a basic, scaled-down scenario, even when the ingredients he’s cooking with are familiar.
That includes the basic situation: A limited number of characters stranded by car trouble on a lonely road after dark, which has fueled superior chillers from Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa’s Ray Wise-Lin Shaye-starrer DEAD END to Bryan Bertino’s more recent THE MONSTER. The devil is in the details of those imperiled people, and in THE TOLL, Nader taps into very modern anxieties about ridesharing, and getting into a car with someone you don’t know. Right from the start, before we even see his face, it’s clear that driver Spencer (Max Topplin) is not necessarily to be trusted from the way he swipes past a few potential male fares to settle on Cami (Jordan Hayes), whom he picks up at an airport for a lengthy trip to her father’s rural home.
Nader swiftly and effectively establishes why Cami doesn’t pay too close attention to Spencer at first; she’s distracted by her own family strife, has had a long and unpleasant flight and just wants to sleep on the way to dad’s place. Spencer’s behavior suggests that might not be a great idea, as he’s a little too inquisitive and makes a few inappropriate jokes that could be harmless or threatening; it’s a credit to Nader’s writing and Topplin’s performance that we’re not entirely sure which. Intercutting claustrophobic car interiors with overhead traveling shots that emphasize the nighttime isolation as they travel further from civilization, Nader blends specific stranger-danger concerns with traditional, reliable gloom-and-doom atmosphere that keeps you on edge even before things become truly threatening.
Once Spencer turns down a road that’s unfamiliar to Cami (hey, he’s just following the GPS), engine trouble leaves them in the middle of no-cell-reception nowhere. That’s when the supernatural comes out to play, and a third, unseen character begins to make his presence known: The Toll Man, whose very name suggests that he wants something from the hapless travelers, and it won’t be something they’ll enjoy parting with. Suddenly, Spencer doesn’t seem like such a menace, and the pair have to determine what exactly the Toll Man is after, and how to save their souls, perhaps literally. Eschewing CGI excess and editing trickery, Nader keeps things simple, knowing that you can deliver a shiver with a well-placed piece of creepy music (followed by the revelation of its source) and via a combination of the right lighting effect on some unnerving makeup and costumes; credit to cinematographer Jordan Kennington for his consistently eerie imagery. And he puts well-earned trust in his two leads, as Hayes and Topplin (who also produced THE TOLL with William Day Frank) ably engage our sympathy and occasional suspicion as their characters’ situation keeps shifting.
As they become more deeply ensnared in the Toll Man’s web, Nader unveils a series of revelations, some of which work and surprise us better than others. Cami and Spencer’s personal histories inevitably come into play, and what we learn about Cami has a low-hanging-fruit feeling when it comes to motivating backstory. While these past circumstances add a bit of depth to the duo, THE TOLL is at its best when it’s observing them in the moment, faced with uncertain and frightening circumstances and just trying to figure out a way to survive the night.