There are many reasons why you could be scared to get in a rideshare. You're putting your trust in a stranger who knows more about you than you know about them, and you have no control over the vehicle where you are both confined. But what if, on top of having a driver making increasingly uncomfortable conversation, they take an unexpected turn, before the car mysteriously breaks down in the middle of a dark road in the woods that look straight out of The Blair Witch Project? That's the premise of the new horror film, The Toll, which was set to make its world premiere at the SXSW film festival, and is a minimalistic yet effective horror tale which sadly strays too far from its promising start.
The main character is Cami (Jordan Hayes), who we meet after she exits the airport and gets in a rideshare on her way to visit her divorced father. It may be that she's tired from her flight, or it may be that her driver Spencer (Max Topplin) is a bit too inquisitive and has a thing for inappropriate jokes that could be interpreted as threatening, but the longer the ride goes, the more uncomfortable and alert she grows. The entire first act of the film is just Hayes and Topplin in a claustrophobic car ride, and it is a credit to the film's writing and the performances of both actors that the audience doesn't really know what to think of Spencer. Yes, he seems a bit weird, but he admits to being socially awkward and bad with people, which makes him a bit endearing, too.
Topplin easily makes his character sympathetic with seemingly genuine attempts at trying to make small-talk and has enough excuses to make us believe he does care for the safety and comfort of his passenger. Credit should go to Hayes' performance, which balances sympathy while making you want to stay at arm's length. You fully understand why Cami takes out her pepper spray, as the film's editing intercuts closeup shots of Spencer and Cami with shots of the claustrophobic vehicle completely isolated on the empty road to increase tension.
When Spencer takes an unfamiliar turn, the car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and The Toll shifts tonal gears to enter the supernatural, as the entity known as The Toll Man starts messing with the two unfortunate souls trapped in his path. Writer/director Michael Nader makes his feature debut with a film that's all about paranoia, whether it’s about being paranoid of the other person in the car, or supernatural creatures lurking in the shadows. Once the creepy messages telling of The Toll Man start showing up out of nowhere, Spencer suddenly stops seeming like a serial killer, and the uncomfortable rideshare turns into a fight for survival.
The Toll is all about simplicity, and Nader knows how to use the tools at his disposal for all they're worth. Eerie atmospheric music by Torin Borrowdale creates tension even when the characters think they’re safe, and cinematographer Jordan Kennington ups the creepy imagery ante by making the small stretch of road look like a massive labyrinthine forest full of danger. Though there's not much in terms of flashy effects or even characters, the film makes it work by always staying close to Cami and Spencer in their little corner of hell even as what looks like creepy mannequins with smiley faces start showing up to signal the arrival of the Toll Man. Nader wears his influences on his sleeve, from a creature that both resembles Slenderman and has a background that could fit the creepypasta figure, to the characters literally taking the time to discuss the 2008 film The Strangers as if it were a decades-old horror classic.
Though The Toll starts out promising and creepy, once the story takes a supernatural turn, Nader also explores the backstories for the characters, in what seems like an attempt to make the film a story of gaslighting and rape victims not being believed. The problem is that Nader has neither the necessary tact nor the ability to effectively weave these themes with the horror of the plot as the film wants you to believe. Instead, this subplot feels like low-hanging fruit that instantly becomes an afterthought, a lazy attempt to justify the paranoia and mistrust between the characters.
The Toll works best when it is simply about the fears of being in a car with someone you don't know, and how every little thing becomes a cause for suspicions. When stripped bare, Nader's debut is an effective horror debut, but when the film tries to shift tonal gears, it becomes a little too busy.