Review: THE TAX COLLECTOR, A Career Low for David Ayer

Bobby Soto, Shia LaBeouf and Cinthya Carmona star in writer-director David Ayer's action-crime film.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: THE TAX COLLECTOR, A Career Low for David Ayer

After stumbling badly twice, first with a big-budget solo writing-directing gig (Suicide Squad) and second with the straight-to-Netflix fantasy actioner (Bright), the Caucasian-born David Ayer (End of Watch, Street Kings, Harsh Times, Training Day) decided a low-budget return to his roots as a reactionary propagandist for toxic masculinity in its most racist, violent, and virulent forms was somehow in order. (More likely than not, Ayer dusted off an old, unproduced script to get him back in the good graces of major studio executives.)

Financed through a hodgepodge of little-known, indie financiers, the result of Ayer’s curdled, creatively bankrupt efforts, The Tax Collector, deserves to go down in film history as an object lesson for non-Latino filmmakers telling one too many repellent, repulsive, exploitation-level stories involving regressive depictions of the Latinx community for cheap, commercial entertainment.

The Tax Collector centers on David Cuevas (Bobby Soto), a mid-level enforcer (aka “tax collector”) for a mid-level South Central gang. By day, David and his unstable partner in illegal arms, Creeper (Shia LaBeouf, apparently in brownface), make the rounds of their territory, collecting the equivalent of protection money from local gangs and drug dealers for a boss identified only as the Wizard.

Whoever’s unwilling or unable to pay, of course, receive treatment ranging from not-so-mild verbal threats to physical beatings. Like apparently all or most Latinx enforcers, David is a devout family man, relying on an unconventional interpretation of his Christian faith to justify his day-to-day otherwise unethical, immoral, and obviously illegal behavior. He’s a loving, considerate husband to Alexis (Cinthya Carmona) and his adoring, angelic children.

Spoiler alert: Anytime a writer-director as heavy-handed and unsubtle as this one introduces an idyllic family life for his protagonists, chances are they’ll be in physical danger or worse before too long, so it’s for the best audiences don’t grow too attached to David’s biological family. That threat comes to fruition when a new arrival, a sociopathic gang leader and ritual slaughter fan, Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), refuses to go along to get along and makes the not-unexpected play for Wizard’s title and control of his gang's territory, with Bobby and everything he’s worked slightly hard for (family, home, bank account) in immediate and long-term danger.

Before long, Conejo and his minions upend Bobby’s curiously sedate, comfortable life, forcing Bobby to engage his more primitive, base impulses (i.e., revenge is a dish best served, etc.) and restore balance to the social order with or without the (insert yawn here) the impulsive, violence-prone Creepy.

Trying to channel his inner Francis Ford Coppola, circa ‘70s-era The Godfather (he can’t because he doesn’t have the talent, self-awareness, or insight), Ayer basically tries to turn David into a Michael Corleone stand-in, conflicted by the choices he’s made and even more conflicted when choices force him to make one compromise after another, eroding whatever soul he has left when we first meet him in The Tax Collector’s early scenes. Except, of course, David isn’t written with any of the subtlety or nuance of a Michael Corleone.

Coppola also gave Michael Corleone a personal journey generally unmatched in cinema, from a young, idealistic man eager to reform his family’s crime empire into a legitimate business to the unrepentant, reptilian don-of-dons, and finally to the broken old man seeking spiritual redemption for a lifetime of murder and violence. Ayer tries to compress David’s journey into a highly compressed 90-minute running time that quickly leaves ruminations about David’s soul behind to engage in a series of chaotically filmed, blood-spattered, carnage-filled encounters typical of exploitation revenge-thrillers.

Worse, Ayer obviously had no idea what he was doing with the Creeper character. He’s either a stereotypical chollo (Latino) character or an unreasonable approximation of one (i.e., a white dude pretending to be Latino). Either way, off-putting LaBeouf’s performance deserves special mention. With a mannered, superficial collection of tics and gestures, LaBeouf looks and sounds like a walking, talking racist stereotype (because he is).

It’s easily the most wince-inducing, tone-deaf performance of LaBeouf’s admittedly uneven career. (Anyone who thought LaBeouf had turned a corner with Honey Boy and American Honey will be sorely disappointed.) Along with Suicide Squad’s Diablo character, Creeper is probably the most objectionable, offensive, and ultimately reprehensible character in Ayer’s filmography.

The film is now available to watch on a variety of Video On Demand platforms.

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Bobby SantoDavid AyerShia LaBeoufUS

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