Travis Leamons // Film Critic
THE TAX COLLECTOR
Not rated, 95 minutes
Director: David Ayer
Cast: Bobby Soto, Cinthya Carmona, Shia LaBeouf, George Lopez, Jose Conejo Martin, and Cheyenne Rae Hernandez
David Ayer has mined so much material from his years living in South Los Angeles that he’s gone from hitting pay dirt to scraping the bottom of the barrel in his latest gangland trip.
THE TAX COLLECTOR is a total mess. Perhaps it is because it once again imbues a negative stereotype of Latinos. However, it could also be its macho posturing, its shoot-‘em-up violence, or character depth that’s in the shallows with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.
The main player is David (Bobby Soto), a loving husband, father, and errand boy for a criminal organization. Now, this enterprise has quite a bit pull over the neighborhood gangs, despite the boss giving orders living in a six by eight cell. David’s job is to ensure that 43 area gangs pay their protection dues. To get to each location, he rides shotgun in a sleek, black Suburban alongside his muscle, Creeper (Shia LaBeouf). Creeper wears fine suits, keeps a cooler of healthy snacks in the SUV, and isn’t afraid to jam one of his guns in a guy’s mouth like a bar of soap.
Shia is by far the best thing about THE TAX COLLECTOR. Having long distanced himself from his days of playing with Transformers as Sam Witwicky, he intensely commits himself to his roles. Working first with Lars Von Trier (NYMPHOMANIAC) and then with Ayer on FURY (one of the director’s few features that doesn’t take place in Los Angeles), Shia’s methodology is so extreme that it attaches a negative stigma among the crew. His casting as Creeper is no exception. (Ayer has been accused of casting Shia in brownface; LaBeouf’s barrio vocal inflections, et al.) Personally, Creeper looked like some white kid who grew up and got hard in East L.A. and assimilated with those around him.
Everything is going as it should: David and Creeper making collections, exuding force to make a point, and making it home safe and sound. Aside from the money stops, it sounds like a couple of cops on patrol. Although this brotherhood in arms is not quite as tight, as observed in David not formally inviting Creeper to his daughter’s Quinceañera.
When David shows mercy on a gang member that shorted him 20 grand, it begins a tailspin as Conejo (Jose “Conejo” Martin), an emissary from a Mexican cartel, makes his arrival to town. He’s there for a hostile takeover to diminish the power wielded by David’s incarcerated boss, Wizard. David forces Conjeo’s hand after turning down his offer to join his enterprise. Conejo’s “frigid” response about one family member is later followed with an exclamation that everyone in David’s life is going to die.
Ayer’s fascination with the Los Angeles street culture has been part of the writer-director’s DNA since the early 2000s. It is a subject he’s come back to several times examining both sides of the law. For the longest time, I thought director Antione Fuqua got to ride on Denzel Washington’s coattails for his Oscar-winning role as bad cop Alonzo in TRAINING DAY (which Ayer wrote). I should have been looking at Ayer, who got to incorporate similar tropes in his films HARSH TIMES and STREET KINGS. His fly-on-the-wall shot END OF WATCH – where cops are the good guys for a change – is arguably his best work and shows a Latino character in a positive light.
THE TAX COLLECTOR is just another L.A.-set crime movie with no rooting interest. You want to empathize with Bobby Soto, but he’s not even the family man trying to masquerade his criminal activities. His wife, Alexis (Cinthya Carmona), is totally on board, going as far as to count each week’s collection and serve as the vocal go-between when Wizard calls.
Add some graphic religious iconography for Conejo and a throwaway line of dialogue that David is a “candle in the darkness” to promote some cockeyed good versus evil struggle and we’re left with the wheel of misfortune landing on creative bankruptcy. The tropes are stale, as is the reliance on flashbacks to emphasize David’s growing anxiety to keep his family safe.
Ayer did have an opportunity to flip the script with the nightmare premonition that Alexis has as the film opens. David dismisses her concerns, and then Conejo comes to town. Considering how things play out, had David been the one with the premonition, then a radical shift would have occurred, ultimately changing the power dynamic and made for a more intriguing confrontation.
Instead, THE TAX COLLECTOR gets audited. It’s a kick to cojones in terms of story, character-building, and (again) reinforces negative stereotypes of Latinos in cinema. Ayer needs to get away from the barrio, pronto.
THE TAX COLLECTOR is now available on digital platforms.