Throughout Tolga Karaçelik’s Toll Booth there’s mention of a meteor careening toward Earth. But the threat of global apocalypse means very little to stone-faced Kenan (Serkan Ercan), a tollbooth operator working at one of Turkey’s busiest highways, a man of routine who has very little interest in social interaction. Deemed “robot” by a mawkish co-worker, Kenan efficiently ushers in a day’s worth of cars in a fraction of the time, but the kinetic opening credit sequence documenting Kenan’s daily grind suggests he’s a machine about to malfunction. After a quiet, nondescript series of shots inside Kenan’s cramped home, Karaçelik cuts to the sweltering exterior of the toll station and the film becomes a Tony Scott-esque symphony of shaky-cam shots and jump cuts, all scored to a crescendo of wailing string instruments. This tonal dichotomy proves Kenan’s perspective is distrusting, a skipping record of experience on endless repeat.
While Kenan goes about his routine, waking up early in order to catch a bus to work and returning late to his grumpy father, Hakki Baba (Zafer Diper), Karaçelik continues to insert fragments of aesthetic dynamism into the overwhelmingly mundane narrative. Vivid hallucinations, which represent pockets of childhood memories come alive, begin to overwhelm Keenan at the most inopportune times. One particularly disturbing sequence occurs midway through a tense shift, when Kenan begins to see Hakki Baba in each successive car that passes through his booth. As his ghostly paterfamilias spews increasingly personal verbal venom, Kenan breaks down in a flurry of irrational rage. The outburst gets him reassigned to a desolate tollbooth in the middle of a poppy seed field, where honking horns and screaming tourists are replaced with the song of crickets and wind.
The physical isolation allows Kenan to relish the quiet, a jarring contrast in experience only intermittently interrupted by the few odd nomads who pass through his booth on a daily basis. One of them is a stunning woman (Sermet Yesil) whose mere presence hints at the possibility of change for Kenan. But Toll Booth isn’t a fairy tale, but a look at how such quick-fix fantasies are the product of a drowsy world simply recycling façades. Instead of finding peace, Kenan only becomes more elementally connected with fractured childhood memories of his once-happy childhood, when his father and now deceased mother once provided a harmonious familial balance.
Through a mix of contrasting tones and aesthetic flourishes, Toll Booth becomes a sporadically stunning examination of past trauma—how it’s born of sudden violent experiences, lingers for years undetected, and ultimately flowers again despite life’s numbing cyclical process. This motif comes to a head late in the film when Kenan’s sun-drenched hallucinations with his dream girl crystallize in the form of another wrenching traumatic incident. Both the sublime and darkly ethereal come crashing together in Kenan’s impending walk through dilapidated buildings that may or may not even exist, a stirring parallel to Sean Penn’s walk through the concrete jungle in The Tree of Life.
Both as a character study and modern-day parable, Toll Booth sneaks up on you with its subtle use of repeating motifs (a worn hole in Hakki Baba’s chair, a shattered bathroom mirror) and audible cues (the revving of an engine, the squeaking car breaks). Through these contrasting images and sounds, Karaçelik creates a breadcrumb trail toward Kenan’s obscured and dismantled past experiences with trauma, yet it’s something that will remain personal no matter the medium they’re represented through. In the final moments, deep sadness permeates every frame, a sense of crippling stasis that not even the end of the world can affect or alleviate. In this sense, Toll Booth becomes the sobering antithesis to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, a waking nightmare devoid of stylish (or pessimistic) resolution.