Film Review – The Tax Collector
The Tax Collector
The Tax Collector (2020) is a reprehensible film. It is vile, ugly, and populated by racial stereotypes. The characters offer little depth, standing around with their macho-posturing trying to be the baddest dude in the room. The story depicts a section of the L.A. Latinx community with no redeeming qualities – the world we see is filled with street gangs that relish the bloodshed they cause. There are no heroes or antiheroes here, just a group of villains fighting against one another to see who can control the local drug trade. I know we have a way to go in 2020, but what we have here is a nominee for Worst Movie of the Year.
Writer/director David Ayer is better than this. In fact, he’s done better than this. His fascination with L.A. gangs goes back almost two decades, from Training Day (2001), Harsh Times (2005), and End of Watch (2012). Each of those had an element of humanity that ran beneath the violence and crime, anchoring it with a clear moral stance. That element is shockingly missing in The Tax Collector. There is no morality here, just multiple versions of the same kind of evil. You might argue that the world of illegal drugs is not one for human decency, and that is true. But on screen, I have very little patience watching bad guys triumph being bad guys.
I don’t care that David (Bobby Soto) has a nice house, a beautiful wife, prays before breakfast, and is looking forward to his daughter’s quinceanera. David is a non-character, a one-dimensional tough guy with a golden heart. The narrative seems to think that showing phony moments of family life will make us forget that he works for a drug lord, going around town collecting a 30% tax from low level dealers. How much of a golden heart does David have when he threatens others by shoving a gun in their mouths? What kindness does he show when he instructs people to rob a bank if they’re short on their payments? David is not a good guy, no matter how much he tries to hide behind his religion. I don’t think God would approve of his actions.
David’s friend, the appropriately named Creeper (Shia LaBeouf) is more indicative of what the movie wants to be. Where David is the negotiator of the two, Creeper is the hired muscle – a trigger-happy sociopath whose more than willing to let his gun do the talking. Prior to this, LaBeouf was on a run of good performances in strong movies (see last year’s Honey Boy and The Peanut Butter Falcon). This is major bump in that run. I don’t know if Creeper is supposed to be a Latinx character or someone who has adopted the culture, but everything about him comes off like a caricature. From the accent, clothing, and persona, Creeper exhibits almost every negative cliché in the gangster handbook. LaBeouf is a good actor, but he’s let down by a movie that doesn’t live up to his skillset. The fact that he even got a real-life tattoo in preparation for the role (which we never get to see) shows a level of dedication Ayer’s writing and direction doesn’t match.
The story we’ve seen a thousand times, involving a rival boss (Jose Conejo Martin) coming to L.A. to take over. Words are traded, old grievances come to light, and soon David and Creeper find themselves in deeper water than they could handle. This is where we discover all of the periphery characters – the wives, the children, etc. – are mere plot devices, pawns to be used to ramp up the tension. It’s the worst kind of manipulation and is executed in a loathsome manner. No one we meet has any resemblance to an actual human being.
Even the storytelling falters. The editing is choppy, obstructing the flow of each scene. The action and violence have a staggered, incoherent style. Ayer often opts to cut to a flashback right in the middle of a set piece, as if this were a parody of a crime thriller. David will flashback to his family, moving in slow motion and bathed in golden light. The effect is more laughable than it is dramatic. And there are some sequences that just don’t make sense. In the middle of a fight, David will quickly recall his jiu jitsu training, as if this is some crucial bit of information the audience needs to know.
Having a criminal as your protagonist is not inherently a bad thing, but the film must take a stand on how it views that character’s decisions. The Godfather trilogy is not one of celebration but of tragedy. What happens to Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Scarface (1983) is the only logical fate he could have. The Wolf of Wallstreet (2013) was an indictment of a society that allowed capitalism to spawn a monster of a man. The Tax Collector does none of this. It takes an ambiguous approach toward its characters, choosing to be merely a spectator. But by doing so, it becomes an accessory.
Final Grade: D-