The Tax Collector
Ayer continues a merciless cinematic descent with an uninteresting gang film
David Ayer has been fascinated with urban crime and law enforcement ever since his screenplay Training Day (2001) became a critical and financial hit; it subsequently allowed him to pursue these stories from the director’s chair. He continued to explore the LA law enforcement’s underbelly in his first few films, and then upgraded to explorations of unorthodox authorities with his war film Fury (2014). Since then, however, Ayer has found it difficult to exploit his success as a mainstream director. His big films Suicide Squad (2016) and Bright (2017) were tepid affairs. Thus, it would make sense for the American filmmaker to turn back to his “roots” and set his next film in LA’s gang underworld.
The Tax Collector (2020) is the story of David (Bobby Soto) a man who works as the “tax collector” of a criminal kingpin. His job is to go around gangs and collect the financial tribute that they owe the big man, who supposedly keeps the peace in LA in exchange. However, at the opening of the film, a seeming coup is set up and the fragile stability is at a risk of coming crashing down.
It was refreshing to see Ayer take on the perspective of a Hispanic-American for this film, and to leave law-enforcement out of it entirely. This makes for a more straightforward film about gang relations. However, Ayer seems to be at a loss of how to tell this story in an intriguing manner. Ayer falls into easy clichés in The Tax Collector, some of which he himself so expertly outmaneuvered and ridiculed in other films of his. We have shallow characters and the moral values and ethics of a Fast & Furious film instead. However, The Tax Collector is not at all self-aware (as the F&F films became) and seeks to be an incredibly gritty and realistic affair. This gives way for an unconvincing dimension in each of the characters. The dialogue itself seems to be unimaginative and uninvolving, neither providing a sense of realism nor giving much information or entertainment. In fact, the script seemed to simply be more focused in how many f-words it could fit into each sentence. The result is a rather phony sense of immersion that occurs around the entire narrative.
However, The Tax Collector’s main problems are actually outside the narrative. They mainly involve the perception and themes that the film is pushing forward, most likely unintentionally. Many of Ayer’s previous films have been extremely violent, but always finding a balance to show it as an anti-bellicose message (this was the case with Fury). In The Tax Collector, however, the violence is equally visual and disturbing, and yet seems to be glorified and structured so as to bring the audience a thrill and prompt a cheer instead. Perhaps the use of violence in studio films has confused Ayer’s direction in this segment. Because of it, we end up having over four scenes featuring a character crushing a man’s skull (very visually) as if it were a chicken’s egg.
Meanwhile, Ayer seems to have lost all problems in showing extreme violence to women; not only showing them beaten, but strangled, stabbed, shot, and burned. Having women wage and suffer violence can be used in a very empowering sense, with the likes of female superheroes or spies making more frequent appearances on the big screen. However, in The Tax Collector Ayer seems to be very clearly singling these women out and making clear note of the gender and femininity; the film seems to be saying that because these female characters dared to get involved in the gang warfare, it justifies their gruesome deaths. Other female characters in the film, have nothing to do with the violence being waged with the gangs, and yet for the simple act of being on the “wrong side” viewers are meant to cheer for their demise.
And then there’s Shia LaBeouf’s casting. LaBeouf has grown out of his diva persona – generally - and delivered two great films last year with The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) and Honey Boy (2019), which showcased a maturing performer. In The Tax Collector I can’t blame the performer too much, since he does go all out to the extent of his abilities; the main problem is his casting as a Hispanic character. It seemed that the whole Hollywood white-washing crisis had finally been put to rest after the backlashes a couple years ago. And yet, here again is another high-profile white actor, playing a different race. I can understand that in order to get the film made, Ayer needed a big star, but one could simply write this character as white instead, and not have viewers cringe at LeBeouf’s attempt at a Mexican accent.
In the end, The Tax Collector proves to be another disappointing entry in Ayer’s recent filmography, marking a worrying descent for the American director. The film has nothing to say either narratively, as it is riddled with genre clichés, or thematically. The Tax Collector is actually more problematic in its existence, due to the things that it is inadvertently representing, and which viewers might have expected filmmakers to move on from. The result is a film that is neither entertaining, engaging, or instructive, if anything it really toes on the border of downright offensive.