There is a book by John Hornor Jacobs called Southern Gods that doesn’t really have anything to do with the movie I’m reviewing here, but it’s a book I think of often, because I was drawn to it by a review that graded it a “B.” A decent grade. Solid. Right at the edge of good. The thing is, this “grade” wasn’t nearly as interesting as the review itself, which in turn made the book seem a lot more interesting, which is why I picked it up despite what some might consider a “lukewarm” score. It’s a book that I actually quite like, despite feeling a little bit let down in the later stages when it departed from a path I wanted to continue on.
In that very general way, I suppose, The Toll does have something in common with Southern Gods. I enjoyed it, but it makes a revelation at the end that, in my opinion, transforms it into a less intriguing version of itself.
All of that to say, this review might not come off overall as glowing or overly enthusiastic, but I would still encourage people to see this film. It’s one of three horror films I watched within few days of each other that all made a positive impression on me (the other two being The Empty Man and The Vigil).
Setup-wise, The Toll could only have been more in my bag if it was set in the south on a gloomy, humid evening instead of in the northeast. Still, we’ve got dark woods, roads that impossibly lead you right back to what you left behind, specters made of memories and a local legend that feels older than it is, and that the locals don’t like to speak of not because they’re being cagey, but for fear of accidentally summoning it.
We spend the vast majority of the movie with just our two leads, played effectively by Max Topplin and even more so by Jordan Hayes. These aren’t especially deep characters. This isn’t that kind of film. The events of the film take place over a segment of night that is of undetermined specific length due to a preternatural presence, but you can nonetheless take it to be a time period too brief to permit much character development. This isn’t a flaw or feature, just a product of the story’s structure. Some of the dialogue is clunky in spots but Jordan and Max sell most of it nonetheless.
The execution of the story is the draw here. It’s nothing mind-blowing, but that’s a bad thing. If I see a character approaching a sign up ahead, I’m not anticipating being “tricked” into thinking it’s something ominous when it turns out to be mundane, but then wait, look again, it actually was ominous after all. I’m a bit of a sucker for a classical approach to horror storytelling at times–something that makes me feel like I’m a kid with my friends again, trading stories about all the ghosts and horrors haunting Mississippi’s coast–in part because I’m probably not going to fall for the pump fake, no matter how many times you try it. I’m not going to jump until you shoot your shot. Director and screenwriter Michael Nader spends most of this movie trying to put points up instead of trying to fool you for the sake of fooling you, and I dig that.
But then, as they say, there’s the rub. Because there is a certain point, very late in the film, where the story just gets a little too blatant to be at its best. There are few different ways it could have ended up where it ended, and for a while it looked like it would take one of the more interesting or challenging routes. Instead it took a comparatively mundane shortcut. I actually felt my shoulders slump a bit when the movie made its decision, and smacked my lips when I realized it was fully committed to said decision. It wasn’t egregious enough to make me not recommend it, but it did leave me less enthused about it overall than I had been just five or six minutes before the credits started to roll.
Final Verdict: I liked it, but wanted to like it more; if you aren’t as disappointed in the ending as I am, you might like it as much as I wanted to.