Shia LaBeouf shouldn’t have been the center of a movie about Latinx street gangs, but he’s also the only bright spot in David Ayer’s latest misfire.
David Ayer usually finds his filmmaking sweet spot with films about the thin line between the police state and the criminal underworld in Los Angeles, like in End of Watch or Training Day (not counting the Orc police officers in 2017s insane Bright). The Tax Collector is in the same crime genre as those films, but it leaves out the police part and goes straight to the criminal underworld, to ghastly results.
The film centers on David (Bobby Soto) who works as the heavy for a crime lord mysteriously named The Wizard. Along with his more aggressive partner, Creeper (Shia LaBeouf), they go around the city collecting money for their boss from various gang members, drug dealers, and generally shady businesspeople. If they don’t have the money ready, then predictably, things get violent.
David is a man of faith who loves his family. The film lets us know that early by having him pray at the dinner table with his loving kids and doting wife, Alexis (Cinthya Carmona). This is before he starts his busy day of violently threatening peoples’ lives for money in order to put food on that same table. Also, in case you still weren’t sure he loved his family, he has a chest tattoo that says “familia”.
The role is a juicy one and has powerful iconography built into it from a history of cinematic “good guys” with lots of blood on their hands from Toshiro Mifune’s conflicted protagonists to Martin Scorsese’s mob characters who are equal parts men of faith and homicidal killers. To pull off a character like that, you need the kind of charisma and screen presence that makes us feel scared, but also intrigued enough that we never want to take our eyes away from the screen. Soto does not have that kind of charisma.
It’s not enough to completely sink the movie, but the film has to work that much harder for us to get on board. While the supporting cast commits to what should be an entertaining, bloody crime drama, Soto sleepily meanders through the proceedings. He hopes that saying, “I love my family” is enough for us to think he means it. When one of The Wizard’s rivals, Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), returns from hiding to stage a violent takeover, putting David’s family in mortal peril, Soto needs to bring his performance to an even higher level of desperate intensity, but he, and the movie, just go through the motions instead.
An actor that never gives less than 110% in anything he does, for better or worse, is LaBeouf. In this film it’s for the better. His twitchy and unique intensity is nicely calibrated here, and is perfectly suited for an extremely violent, godless psychopath affectionately called Creeper. Not to mention he was committed enough for this role to tattoo his entire chest. I can only assume Daniel Day-Lewis is cobbling shoes somewhere right now thinking of how to top this.
[LaBeouf’s] solid performance doesn’t make up for much larger issues in Hollywood casting BIPOC actors.
Creeper is used as the darker counterweight to the pious and good-hearted David, which is probably why Creeper is more fun. The scenes earlier in the film where the two of them drive around L.A., talking about God, meditation and dieting between violent encounters are the best parts of the film. The episodic structure gives the film steady rails to ride on, and each scene gives a fresh, visceral splash of water to your face. Ayer also knows how to shoot the sundrenched streets of L.A. during the day. What Spielberg does for shooting characters looking up in awe and wonder, Ayer does for driving around South-Central Los Angeles.
The intoxicating “day in the life” format quickly goes away though when Conejo enters the picture and we quickly jump through plot points to get to the violent climax. Speaking of Conejo, Martin is having a blast with this over the top villain role, but the movie goes so over the top that they have him participate in a ritualistic sacrifice that comes out of nowhere. It’s a ridiculous scene, is never commented on later, and I have a million questions.
There’s also the controversy over why LaBeouf is even in this movie in the first place, and why his role couldn’t have gone to a Latinx actor, like the majority of the cast. Ayer has attempted to defend the casting by saying Shia’s character is a “white boy who grew up in the hood” like him. Whether this justifies the decision or not, it is jarring at first to see Shia in the middle of this diverse cast, (his race is never mentioned in the film) and his solid performance doesn’t make up for much larger issues in Hollywood casting BIPOC actors.
Controversy aside, The Tax Collector still doesn’t work. As great as Ayer is as shooting during the day, the nighttime scenes are too dark, and too confusingly staged to have any dramatic impact. So, when the climax of the movie is at night, that’s a problem. Combine that with a script that abandons a compelling structure for more standard B-movie action plotting and a B-movie lead performance, then you’re just left with a B-movie.
The Tax Collector rolls up on some creaky, awful crime thrills on digital and VOD August 7th.