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Movies Toll BoothThe Toll Booth (2014), more accurately, the” toll taker,” has a nice play on words in it, at least in English.  The tolls that Kenan [Serkan Ercan] takes from motorists take a toll on his life, lived in unsettled, if impassive, desperation.

As the film opens he is taking tolls –in shirt and tie– in one of the coffin-sized booths across a five-lane, heavily trafficked highway.  “Ticket Please!” Insert. Read. Punch keys. “Five lira.” Reach out. Take the money. Cut the ticket. Push the button. Make change. Next car.  Eight. Hour. Shift.

Though any of the toll takers could have the same name, Kenan is dubbed Robot because of his expressionless demeanor, on or off the job.  Naturally, all is not so calm beneath the surface. Nor, in his home-life, where he lives with his aging and cantankerous, even abusive, father, Hakki Baba [Zafer Diper.]  Over non-stop television news that an asteroid is threatening the earth, Baba makes if clear that Kenan has amounted to nothing. He is not even married, though a perfectly suited — in Baba’s view– neighbor woman is available, Nurgül [Nergis Öztürk,] who takes care of the old man during working hours.  Nudge, nudge, push, push, shout!

Nurgül is not averse to more conversation with Kenan but, forced to go out for tea, he cannot find much to say, dealing perhpas, with the hallucinations that are beginning to over-take him: in one sequence every driver coming through appears as his father, yelling at him.

One day, after yelling back at his father, in fact a surprised motorist, Kenan is sent to a remote, rural post where, instead of three cars a minute there are three cars a day. Now the prick to his madness is not robotic self protection but extreme boredom, into which enters a pretty young motorist, Kadin [Nur Fettahoglu/Aysan], or hallucination of one.  We’re not very sure. At least he’s not yelling, though.  One affecting scene has the two lying in a field of wheat while he tells her of his childhood dream of being a knight. Its contrary –reality– comes after we’ve seen Kenan working on an old car, to prove his competence to his father, and to himself, and his father sells it, without a word, of acknowledgment, or thanks.

Dad eventually dies, which does not improve things.  The yelling was, at least, a form of company.

What to think of all this?  There is no Hollywood uplift at the end: he neither finds love with the neighbor nor the motorist.  He is taken from the toll booth, screaming to be returned.

The story of a lost lonely soul is not unknown to western ears, from “J. Alfred Prufrock” to “Eleanor Rigby,” “Death of a Salesman” included.  Toll Booth shos that modernity strikes us all.  Somehow, however, it doesn’t escape its personal origins enough to become universal.  We see him. We may feel a bit of pity for him. But we (I) are nor invested in him.  He is frozen in his helplessness which, I think, is hard for western (American) audiences to get.  We want action, or at least some reasons, a back story, for why he is so.  There’s a bit of wanting to slap him and say, wake up!

I had a friend once, a woman, who broke the prohibition on women toll takers on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.  She was proud of herself for opening the door for other women and happy, for a while, to have a job.  It didn’t take her long to realize there were not many jobs worse than it — as described in the movie.  She was going crazy from repetition, vehicle exhaust and even from the constant irritation on her palm as money exchanged hands. She, like Kenan,  lost herself in fantasy to pass the hours, and admitted to being irritated if poked out of it by an occasional friendly “hello, how’s your day going?” She finally quit, three years later,  family and friends intact enough to give her room to move on.

Kenan, not so much.

Director and writer, Tolga Karaçelik, does a good job with his first feature length film. Though early on a dark cluttered feeling might have been lit a notch or two, the darkly lit walks home with Nurgül have an appropriate ambiguity between possible romance and lack of interest.  A very nice crane shot hovers over the childhood revelation in the wheat.  Very nice cutting grants us access to his hallucinations. The original score by Cem Adiyaman is interesting, and usually effective, with a mix of cello and Mide-Eastern instrumentation.

So alltogether, not high applause from me but interested regard. Movie omnivores will like it, students of modern angst, the noose of family, or unrecognized possibility. Viewers with more circumscribed tastes will likely grow irritable; Jeez! Kenan.  Get a grip!  It is always fascinating to me, however — perhaps a measure of my provincialism– how similar, across the world our human problems are.  We’ve seen toll-boths and toll-takers most of our lives in America, more in the East than in the West.  Seldom, I imagine, have we considered their lives, much less those of Turks, or that any in countries with roads might have equal desperation.

The Toll Booth is another of many films brought to my attention –and yours– by the Global Film Initiative. Their synopsis is here.

Fandor dot com, claims to be a curated catalog of top films (and it looks good to me) also has Toll Booth available.  It’s offering several weeks free trial at the moment.

Amazon Prime Video has it included in the Prime subscription.

Variety review here.

More reviews here. Interview excerpts with director, in the Austin Film Society selection.