David Ayer is a writer-director who knows what he likes: troubled men, brutal violence, harsh climates. His Harsh Times, Street Kings and End of Watch are notable for their low-budget, on-the-street approach to Los Angeles street crime. Sabotage, Fury, Suicide Squad and Bright evolved those troubled men in cycles of violence to larger budgets and broader canvasses.
Ayer returns home literally and figuratively with The Tax Collector, a almost entirely Latino-cast film about David (Bobby Soto) and Creeper (Shia LaBeouf), two “tax collectors” for Los Angeles crime lords who are challenged by a shift in the power structure that keeps them fed. David balances his power on the streets with an upscale lifestyle that includes his beautiful wife, Alexis (Cinthya Carmona), two kids and plenty of extended family. Creeper, on the other hand, likes to talk about all the “bitches” he fucks between contracted workouts of his achy trigger finger. Their contrast is clearly Ayer’s story engine for setting up David’s journey into the heart of criminal darkness. It’s visible from scene to scene, moment to moment.
Like many small-budget movies, The Tax Collector gets by on the goodwill of an audience willing to overlook its necessary production shortcuts and embrace the heart underneath. And like many small-budget movies, The Tax Collector has too many of the former to really engage with the latter. It is paced relentlessly and packed to the gills with characters who are at best unlikable. Their dialogue is faux-casual and overly scripted. LaBeouf is the headline star here, taking on the role of a white kid who grew up alongside David and has taken on affectations of Latino culture. Ayer was quick to correct critics who viewed the trailer and believed Creeper was an example of LaBeouf playing a racist caricature, which he is not. He is, however, playing a character whose only interesting aspect is that he’s another of the actor’s mumbling, tortured souls, and LaBeouf brings nothing else besides the goodwill of critics who have consistently rooted for his success out of familiarity — and maybe a little bit of guilt for throwing him to the wolves so frequently in the mid-2000s. I’m generally rooting for LaBeouf, but he isn’t much to write home about here.
Soto, on the other hand, brings a lot of pathos to David even as he slides into a crime-genre archetype without much else. David’s a man tired of the fates written for him but unable to escape the world in which he is trapped. There’s a visceral pleasure to Ayer’s directing even when the story isn’t compelling or the characters feel flat. Soto’s emotional turmoil registers at the same key as the story builds to inevitable bursts of blood and death.
Eventually, yeah, it all turns to gunfire and gut shots and stabbing and blunt-force trauma to the skull. The Tax Collector is fundamentally a small-scale crime movie that hits the necessary beats without setting itself apart in any meaningful way, aesthetically or emotionally. It will satiate those predisposed to Ayer’s approach to crime fiction but likely leave audiences looking for something that will change their minds or introduce them to a new talent feeling cold.