David Ayer has morphed into an enigmatic force in Hollywood, one who has endured his fair share of highs and lows in the industry. Promising offerings like Fury and End of Watch have displayed Ayer’s ability to infuse humanity into machismo conventions, yet the director’s recent run of lackluster blockbusters (Suicide Squad and Bright) have left a sour aftertaste for his fans. Returning to his crime drama stomping grounds with The Tax Collector, Ayer’s latest falters as a vapid shoot-’em-up exercise that fails to hit its mark.
The Tax Collector follows David (Bobby Soto), a family man working as a collector for a Los Angeles crime lord alongside his loyal companion Creeper (Shia LaBeouf). When a new threat Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin) comes to town, David prepares for all-out war while trying to protect his sacred family dynamic.
For all his misgivings, Ayer still displays assured technical craftsmanship. His tight, kinetic framing portrays the dingy streets and their unnerving dangers with visceral impact, building a sense of place that brustles with life and uncertainty. His world-building is aided by The Tax Collectors’ core leads, who command the screen with ease. Bobby Soto earnestly conveys David’s confliction with dramatic weight, displaying David’s efforts to build a sense of normalcy in his familiar bonds to right-the-wrong of his tumultuous, crime-oriented upbringing.
Perhaps the biggest spotlight has derived from Shia LaBeouf’s presence as a Chicano crimelord (Ayer’s revealed the character to be a Jewish man indoctrinated into the LA lifestyle, though the movie could do a better job articulating that). While his performance will likely be divisive, I could not help but be drawn into his magnetic screen presence. Playing Creeper as a man overcompensating for his fears with a coldly callous presence, LaBeouf deploys a restlessly twitchy energy that bursts through the screen like a Tony Montana wannabe. He also forms a genuine comradery with Soto onscreen, which propels some of the film’s quieter earlier frames. Despite the shellacking Ayer has received for this project pre-release, I do think the director had noble aspirations to promote much-needed diversity on the screen.
Good intentions do not birth a satisfactory film though, with The Tax Collector drowning under the surface of its self-serious exterior. Ayer’s screenplay is stuck in a murky middle ground between grounded crime-drama and low-rent actioner, often dancing between the two tonalities without much grace. This confused delivery significantly hinders any dramatic potential, as the script crafts simplistic, one-note caricatures that feel ill-fitted in its contemporary landscape (Conejo feels like he’s thrown in from another film, especially considering the ritual scene where he’s dowsed in the blood of human sacrifice). This approach creates an abhorrent portrait of the film’s female character, who thanklessly range between subservient victims to over the top henchman.
Similar to some of Ayer’s previous projects, The Tax Collector features a vicious mean-streak that is never imbued with much-needed purpose. The violence here is as gratuitous as it gets, with Ayer dreaming up some sickening kills that only stand to shock audiences. Both sides turn to all-out bloodshed under the simplistic guise of family and honor, embracing archaic ideas without an ounce of self-awareness. A more astute narrative could have observed the conditions behind our characters’ casualty cruelty, whether it’s influenced by family lineage or as a byproduct of a disenfranchised environment. Without a substantive throughline, the abrasive violence just feels like a tacky inclusion.
The Tax Collector highlights David Ayer’s worst tendencies as a craftsman, fixating on shallow style and noise over substance [C-].
Written by Matt Conway