[SXSW 2020 Review] THE TOLL

THE TOLL is writer/director Michael Nader’s feature film debut and it centers around a young woman who takes a rideshare and ends up facing threats bigger than she could ever imagine. The film stars Jordan Hayes (House at the End of the Street), Max Topplin (2013’s Carrie), James McGowan (Murdoch Mysteries), and Rosemary Dunsmore (Orphan Black). To best describe the plot, I’ll turn to the official SXSW synopsis:

“It’s 1am. An exhausted Cami orders a rideshare at the airport. Her driver: Spencer, awkward and unsettling. Her destination: Her dad’s place in the middle of nowhere. Cami grows increasingly suspicious of Spencer’s odd behavior. This fear gives way to a full-blown terror when their car breaks down on a secluded road. And they both realize they’re not alone… Suddenly the car comes under attack – a rock smashes through the window. Attached to a message that warn visitors must ‘pay the toll.’ Cami and Spencer realize it’s a supernatural force haunting them: the Toll Man, pitting these two strangers against each other. Until they discover that for either to survive, one of them has to die.”

What I love about movies like THE TOLL is how unexpected they are. This was a film that took me on a journey where I thought I was headed one way only to be completely side-swept. THE TOLL is a story of real-life horror colliding into that of the supernatural and it’s done in a way that is both unnerving and scarily relatable. We have Cami (Jordan Hayes) on her way to meet her father and her rideshare driver, Spencer (Max Topplin) making uncomfortable conversations by asking personal questions, making advances, and chatting about his hobby of hunting. Needless to say, Spencer 100% gives off that ole’ creepy vibe. After Spencer turns onto an unfamiliar dirt road, his car breaks down, prompting Cami to try and go off on her own in hopes of finding help. However, unbeknownst to her and Spencer, they’ll never get to leave until their toll has been paid.

What really sells this film is the acting of both Hayes and Topplin. When it comes to the performances, 95% of this film is solely on the acting chops of the two of them which only heightens over the course of the runtime. Hayes’ performance of Cami is one that is distant and distracted – it’s something that is easily picked up on once we meet her outside of the airport. At first, Spencer could be seen as socially awkward but Topplin’s performance adds a dash of off-putting behavior making the viewer question his motives. The film challenges the viewer to try and understand these characters better as the horror of the Toll Man’s abilities come into play. It’s through these supernatural moments that we get a deeper look into Cami and Spencer’s background which helps in understanding these characters better.

Michael Nader’s skill is on full display as not only did he direct the film but he wrote the story as well. One of the highlights of THE TOLL is the writing skill of Nader and his ability to create a tightly woven story that keeps you guessing the entire time. Without spoiling anything, I’ll only say that THE TOLL did a fantastic job of keeping me on my toes. Though some of my instincts were correct, I was met with a few surprises that had me clapping in enjoyment. Furthermore, the film felt timely in how women are regarded as well as the fears women experience when alone with a stranger. Because of this, I felt like Nader created a film that truly elevated those feelings of horror that many women experience.

As for the scares, I liked that Nader relied on building the tension instead of single-handly relying on jumpscares. Furthermore, I loved that the Toll Man is a character that isn’t overly used to the point of saturation. Instead, we are given glimpses throughout the first half that is mixed with disturbing imagery in the second that really ramps up the feelings of terror. This had a much more lasting impact on me as the viewer instead of the momentarily cheap thrills that come with most horror flicks. Not to say there is anything bad with a good jumpscare but I felt like this film didn’t need to solely rely on that. Instead the dread is built up through the tension presented by our two leads and the horrific circumstances they find themselves in.

In all, THE TOLL is a slick horror flick filled with unending twists and turns. It’s one of those films that will have you gripping the armrest in anticipation of what’s to come while also making you cheer in satisfaction. For his feature film debut, Nader knocked it out of the park and it makes me excited to see what else he has in store for the horror genre.


Shannon McGrew
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