Movie Review: Mob mayhem makes its way to a lonely Welsh “Tollbooth”

Oy, Ryan Andrew Hooper and Matt Redd. We’re on to you, lads.

The director and writer of “Tollbooth” have conjured up a modern day Welsh Western in the style of “The Guard,” with the whole enterprise basically an homage to the writer-directors Martin McDonagh and his brother John Michael McDonagh.

It lacks the Catholic subtexts, the operatic violence and the showy McDonagh style. The setting and characters are Welsh and not Irish. But there’s enough spark in the dialogue, novelty in the twists and foreboding in the way the characters eyeball their fate to make the connection clear and the tribute to the masters an affectionate and entertaining one.

If it’s not on a par with the works of the McDonagh Brotherss, it’s still a droll, dark homage that works.

Veteran character actor Michael Smiley (“Rogue One” to “The Nun,” “Free Fire” and “The Lobster”) is the title character. That’s what everybody calls the 60ish loner who takes tolls on a remote, narrow and dangerous Welsh backroad.

He sits and reads (“Stoner”), eats his lunch and deals with so few drivers that the job seems like a make-work project.

Don’t ask him which ferry you should take or what time they run.

“I’m not a timetable.”

And for the love of Pete, don’t you dare rob him. This guy has a past. This guy has friends.

“I’ll expect recompense, if not retribution,” he mutters into the phone. He has minions (Iwan Rheon and Paul Kaye) at his beck and call.

But the anarchic “triplets” (Gwyneth Keyworth) who threatened him and held him up at gunpoint, local characters bopping about in a 1961 Morris Minor convertible with a novelty horn that plays “Dixie,” pay that no heed. Everybody knows who they are and they have no notion of “consequences.”

And they’re not the only ones who have brought the threat of violence to this man “in the middle of nowhere, but really in the middle of everything.”

“Tollbooth” is framed in “a long story” told to the local constable (Annes Elwy of the Welsh thriller “The Feast”) in search of answers from the bloke even she only knows as “Tollbooth,” a fellow with a lot of explaining to do.

The plot is a “You understand who you’re dealing with” tale of actions, recriminations and an ancient grudge of the “I done a terrible thing a long time ago” school. It’s told out of order, with some scenes repeated as we see a convertible driving toff (Gary Beadle) show up, watch a farmer extorted and start to understand the “operation” being run through this remote tollbooth.

We pick up on the dynamics of a whole village — or at least its pub — “protecting” Tollbooth’s real identity, and start to learn about secrets and meet the Elvis impersonator/gang-leader Dixie (Evelyn Mok), a tough broad with a psychopathic henchman (Darren Evans) whose mumble is so pronounced only she understands him.

And yes, every single character and wrinkle laid out above could have come from this McDonagh (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) or that one (“Calvary”).

I’m not pointing that out to jab the filmmakers. After all, if you’re going to imitate others, imitate the best, right? And the bottom line is, “Tollbooth” works, even if it plays as more of a surface skim of guilt, grudges, revenge and remorse.

Smiley plays Tollbooth with an understated patience and calm, even when others seem to have the drop on him. Elwy gives us a bead on young but not exactly “green” member of Heddlu, not as pissed as she should be about being out of the loop about Tollbooth, but with other issues on her mind.

Rheon (“Game of Thrones”) does what he can with a character that’s like a Welsh survey of every punk Colin Farrell played back in the day.

And watch for a tasty turn by ex-Bond and Indiana Jones villain Julian Glover in the finale.

It’s not a dazzling debut feature. But Hooper and Redd ensure that it’s a tidy, tough and entertaining one, and that any reminders of the films its borrowing from just add to the fun.

Rating: unrated, violence, profanity

Cast: Michael Smiley, Annes Elwy, Iwan Rheon, Evelyn Mok, Gary Beadle, Gwyneth Keyworth and Julian Glover.

Credits: Directed by Ryan Andrew Hooper, scripted by Matt Redd. A Samuel Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:23

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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