***Originally shared on The Film Experience***
I’m not certain I’ve ever seen a movie fall apart so much, so quickly, and so late as The Tax Collector. What begins as an intense, well-crafted, gangster picture — almost a twisted buddy movie really — eventually devolves into a poorly constructed revenge film.
The first half, at least, is chock-full of intriguing little details, and workday nuances that could’ve only been culled from real-life experience on the mean streets of East Los Angeles. David (Bobby Soto) is a mid-level collector for his imprisoned ringleader father (Jimmy Smits) and connected uncle (George Lopez). He’s a monied, family man in a wealthy enclave, running the day-to-day errands for their neck of the woods, which mostly involve collecting gang taxes from the neighborhood shops and shopkeepers. His enforcer Creeper, a well-dressed white man and friend he clearly grew up with, is played by a riveting Shia Labeouf. Labeouf began his career as a Disney Channel star, then segued into blockbuster stardom via Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg. Personal turmoil and bad choices wreaked minor havoc on his career for a time, relegating him to the fringes of independent cinema with an occasional auteur flirtation (Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac , Andrea Arnold’s American Honey). 2019 was a bit of a comeback party for Labeouf, as the gentle drama Peanut Butter Falcon and his harrowing child star story Honey Boy proved he was committed to his craft and possibly in it for the long haul.
As flawed as it may be, The Tax Collector is an excellent example of the actor’s continually improving track record of performances. He’s an ever-watchable livewire here, even when Creeper is merely standing still with a pair of sunglasses shielding his soul. His character is the most interesting in the film, a cold-blooded killer who nevertheless wants for friendship, and who treats his body as a temple. He’s a guy who preaches about meditation and mindfulness and then quips “we killing anybody today?” Much has been made about a giant tattoo Labeouf purportedly had chiseled onto his chest for this role and, unfortunately for him, that ink barely sees the light of day on camera. There’s also been some minimal hullabaloo over the possibility that Labeouf is playing brown-face, a white man playing a Mexican. There’s no evidence in the film to support such a claim, or the assumption that everyone in David’s crew would have to be Latino. There’s a running theme throughout of different gangs cooperating with one another, not simply out of business obligation but collective empathy as well. So perhaps we should give director David Ayer, a guy who grew up with LA gangs, the benefit of the doubt there.
As the actual protagonist, Soto is unfortunately saddled with a pretty rudimentary arc: a neglected son wanting to prove his worth to a distant father. The film opens on David’s morning before-work routine and it’s briefly fascinating watching this family man shift from doting on his wife and kids to intimidating a who’s-who of the LA underworld. Not that we haven’t seen such a playful dissonance before, but for about ten minutes the trope feels fresh again. If The Tax Collector was content to be a series of misadventures and stand-offs around town, it might have proven itself a worthwhile endeavor. The best parts all come early on and involve Soto and Labeouf patrolling the city in their black SUV, driving errand to errand, bickering and enjoying each other’s company. David Ayer has delivered flashes of greatness with this sort of material before with his screenplay for Training Day (another film that was elevated by a charismatic movie star performance) and his well received cop drama End of Watch. He has no such luck here.
Between a disgusting yet uninteresting villain and a rack-focus to David’s love for his wife, a subplot that never quite gels into something we care about, Ayer’s film goes off the rails as the character’s life does. It’s never good when a script makes you angry, aghast at the unmotivated narrative choices that they believed would work on an audience. When people start dying in droves, the movie dies with them.