The Tax Collector (2020) is an independent film written & directed by David Ayer (Street Kings, End of Watch). It was produced on a $30 million budget by RLJ Entertainment, cinematographed entirely on location within the gang ridden streets of Los Angeles. Having avoided going through the gauntlet of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) – who represent ratings for major film studios and Netflix – The Tax Collector has been listed as ‘Not Rated’. David Ayer displays his experience as a filmmaker with patience and grace as he sets up the story, and many of the gory scenes could have escalated, but Ayer’s maturity as a director purposely restrains the violence with editing and camera angles, leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. While depicting a viciously intense storyline that takes place in the most notorious gang neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Ayer employs cinematic elements of camera framing and musical score to remind the audience that they’re watching cinema, not reality. The Tax Collector wasn’t made for the masses, and it’s sure to disturb the hypersensitive viewers who easily turn the other cheek, or find it offensive the way ethnic cultures are depicted in menacing ways on-screen; but it’s sure to find it’s audience and entertain those who meet the demographics; those who have experienced the neighborhood cultures depicted in the film; some may even find the film’s climax surprisingly unifying and cheerful.
Love, honor, loyalty, and family. Those four words are superimposed on-screen in the opening images, representing the underlying theme of this action/crime drama starring Bobby Soto and Shia LaBeouf. We see a close-up of David (Bobby Soto) and his beautiful family of four, depicted in the form of digital artwork that transitions into an actual picture frame above the fireplace of David’s suburban family home. As we’re taken into the depths of his family, we meet his a beautiful wife, Alexis (Cinthya Carmona), along with his daughter and son. David’s sister, along with his sister-in-law Jazmin (Gabriela Flores) and other women of the family cook a feast in the kitchen. David pulls his daughter’s loose tooth, then tells her to take care of her brother. He rubs the shape of a crucifix with his finger on their foreheads before he embarks upon his dangerous day. This is an unexpected opening sequence that establishes David’s character as a genuine family man who lives a double life. In essence, he doesn’t belong to the dangerous life he engages in for work, but the story teaches us how he was born into it.
When David shows up to his business inside of a warehouse, he’s disappointed in his cousin Lupe (Chelsea Rendon) for waking up with a hangover. Then the infamous character of Creeper – portrayed by the great Shia LaBeouf – strides inside and we’re exposed to his mannerisms adapted from growing up as a white guy in a crime infested neighborhood. It’s important to note that Creeper is not of Latin descent, but a representation of what can happen to an ethnic outcast when he becomes the product of his environment. The Latinx culture has clearly rubbed off on Creeper as he speaks with a subtle, stereotypical Hispanic accent. David and Creeper work as “Tax Collectors” for a crime lord named Wizard (Jimmy Smits), collecting his cut from the profits of local LA gangs’ illicit dealings. “Every gang in LA has to pay their fucking taxes. We get thirty percent of everything they make.” David says. A montage sequence shows how David and Creeper go around town to collect money. “If your stacks short, rob your mother, sell your sister’s pussy.” David says, in a contradicting and hypocritical statement to a drug dealer named Victor (Rene Moran); considering how David loves his own family and his own sister in the opening sequence, this is clearly Ayer’s way of showing us David’s hypocrisy; a low point in his character arc. “Keep your head down.” David says to Victor, in a great line of dialogue written by Ayer that suggests the opposite of what people are told; in keeping your head down, you’re incognito and humble; keeping your head up suggests unnecessary pride and false confidence because there’s always someone bigger.
There are a slew of unique scenes like David and Creeper paying a visit to David’s Uncle Louis (George Lopez) at his tire shop that’s posed as a front for his drug dealing debt collections. Uncle Louis’ office is wire tapped, causing them to speak together in sign language. There’s raw, authentic and original dialogue filled with banter between David and Creeper as they drive through the city streets discussing Jesus, Hell, and abortion – to say the least. There’s a pivotal scene where David and Creeper take a detour from their daily route and rescue a “Bloods” gang member from being beaten up because he was caught engaging in sexual acts with a rival gang members wife. David orders for the rival gang member to be punished for not having control of his wife, and returns the badly beaten African/American gangster back to his neighborhood in a pivotal scene where Creeper and David face-off with dozens of “Bloods” gangsters. But it turns out in their favor, as they gain the love and support of the gang leader, Bone (Cle Sloan).
David and Creeper’s lives take a twisted turn when they go to collect $200K from a gangster named Venom – portrayed by the Mexican/American mixed martial artist, Brian Ortega, a featherweight in the UFC. Venom disrespects David and refuses to turn over the $200K; there’s a new boss in town named Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), who tells David to go to his Tio Louis and tell him “Conejo is back from Jalisco”. David finds Uncle Louis and his mysterious crime lord, Wizard, as well as his own family at risk when Conejo threatens to upend the business. This leads to an intense third act that you won’t see coming; as real as it gets – with actors doing their best to portray a reality that’s unspeakable; a reality that’s too dark. Hats off and major credit to David Ayer for writing and directing such a sinister film about the underworld culture of gang activity in LA, in addition to the attachment of Shia LaBeouf’s clout that brings much needed attention to the topics presented in this film.
This film is not rated – which means it’s X-rated. And there’s a serious reason why: animal sacrifice, human sacrifice, satanic worship, god vs. the devil and theories of evolution are all ideas discussed and depicted in The Tax Collector. Shia LaBeouf’s supporting performance is the perfect ingredient that makes this film as watchable as it is. Bobby Soto displays tremendous courage with acting prowess by showing wide range in scenarios that are unspeakable and disturbing. The villain, Conejo, is truly intimidating and his wild antics are convincing. This film is packed with so much dialogue that it almost calls for a second viewing. David Ayer employs the use of flashbacks, visions and dream sequences to convey marvelous emotions amid the gruesome turmoil. This is a film about the love and sacrifice of a family’s inevitable ties to crime; David must fight for his family and his own life.
Bobby Soto and Shia LaBeouf’s chemistry is apparent on-screen. It’s obvious they connected off camera, behind the scenes, through their own friendship. You can see it between them in the film. Their friendship element results in a captivating on-screen duo as they recite David Ayer dialogue, reminiscent Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena in End of Watch (2012) – Ayer’s 2012 crime/drama about the necessary evil of cops who take on a criminal underworld greater than themselves; criminals who are truly diabolical, like the ones in The Tax Collector. David Ayer displays incredible patience in plot development and character backstory, ultimately accelerating into a fast-paced crime/drama without a single dull moment. The entire film is filled with eye-popping imagery and Shia LaBeouf’s intensity pierces through the screen as he bares Creeper’s trapped interior emotions like a beast. Bobby Soto’s fierceness beams out of his eye sockets with a containment of madness; they both have different scenes where sweat drips profusely down their faces while grimacing with imminent threats to their enemies. Their eyes never blink, making their raging performances credible. Like good cop bad cop, David is the good tax collector and Creeper is the bad one. Soto plays down his performance amid heightened situations and it meshes well with LaBeouf’s opposite tone of tension within a beastly presence, fuming at the mouth with restricted poise.
There are many scenes that are gruesome and gory which could be disturbing to some viewers. However, one may find the technical execution of the violent scenes farfetched and outlandish. The brutality presented is executed with a sense of graphic novel/comicality, as opposed to full-blown realistic depictions of crime. There’s a moment where a victim’s face is dragged across concrete from a fast-moving minivan; given the circumstances of the plot, an audience member shouldn’t mind that this barbaric act is occurring to this character. Moreover, it comes off as a graphic novel styled depiction than a realistic situation; David Ayer knows he’s making a movie. Even if the film he’s making is grounded in reality, there’s still artistic decisions being made on his part and some of the most violent acts in this film that are unspeakable are depicted in inventive ways, fully aware of themselves as a part of a film – the epitome of all arts. David Ayer constantly reminds his audience that it’s cinema, not reality. Many instances in this film are reminiscent of a comic book story, and it should come as no surprise, since we’re talking about a filmmaker who’s fresh off of directing Bright (2017) and Suicide Squad (2016) – two fantasy films. There’s no doubt that David Ayer carried over certain filmmaking techniques. Without giving spoilers, there’s a bloodbath scene where one character holds onto the corpse of his loved one, and Ayer uses an overhead ‘godshot’ that’s very cinematic – almost something straight out of Frank Miller’s Sin City graphic novels. As for the gruesome scene where a villain gets his face dragged across concrete and partially destroyed – we can’t call that atrocious and be okay with accepting Aaron Eckhart’s “Two Face” burning in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008); there’s some serious hypocrisy and contradiction going on if we do. Remember Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, when The Bride single handedly dismembers the Crazy 88?
It’s refreshing to see a Latinx cast, and the turn in the film’s climax will be sure to cause positive cheers and pride for African/American audiences who watch this film. There are many sensitive film critics who long for a future where we can see more movies of this pedigree that don’t focus on gangster culture and rely on more positive aspects of immigrants in California who are contributing members of society, as opposed to its menaces depicted here in The Tax Collector. But films require conflict and drama, a push and pull of emotions that make for entertainment. Filmmaking is a trade and acting is a job, David Ayer should be praised for bringing money to these affected urban communities in Los Angeles. The cast and crew should be commended, not condemned. There are many audiences and critics alike who are quick to pull-out the stereotype card because almost every Latinx character is depicted as a gang-related affiliate; it would behoove them to realize that the actors portraying these gang-related characters are working a job and getting paid to earn a living. It’s not an intentional portrayal of a community being typecast negatively when the Latinx actors agree to portray these ruthless characters themselves. This is a movie, and it appears as though certain individuals inadvertently neglect to comprehend the fact that there are cameras and production crews involved; it’s not real even though it’s grounded in reality. It’s amusing how other film critics will be quick to bash this film as “atrocious” but praise equally horrifying and gruesome films like the Halloween franchise or – insert recent horror film here – with positive reviews.
The fact that David Ayer makes a film like this and employs Latinx actors is a positive note. In terms of the subject matter and how it affects the Latinx culture, of course it’s a one-sided and narrow minded representation; Latin Americans are hard-working, law abiding citizens and many of which are college educated and hold family values of loyalty and love without becoming involved with any type of criminality. Does the subject matter in The Tax Collector ring true? Los Angeles is notoriously known for its gang activity; it would behoove one to concur that the storyline isn’t a speculation. Often times the pedigree of the gang violence depicted in this film seems like a throwback to the ‘90s, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t a gang-war film; on the surface it’s about debt collectors who take a cut of every gangs’ drug sales, but on a deeper level it’s about family generations and the mistrust between father and son. Along with family, honor and loyalty, the word ‘sacrifice’ is sufficient to explain what’s at stake with the characters in this story. The Tax Collector will undoubtedly find its audience, the same way that Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day (written by David Ayer), Harsh Times (2005), Street Kings (2008), End of Watch (2012) and Sabotage (2014) did. David Ayer has an eye for cinema and his widened view of cops and criminals offer tremendous insight into an underworld many wouldn’t dare to explore.
Grade: B- | 80% | 3 Stars | Above Average