Film Review: “The Tax Collector” Provides an Interesting Look inside L.A. Latinx Gang Culture, but Elsewhere Falls in Debt
Written by: Matt Patti | August 6th, 2020
The Tax Collector (David Ayer, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.
From writer/director David Ayer (Bright), The Tax Collector is a gritty, violent gang-crime thriller set in Los Angeles, California. The film explores the Latinx gangs of the city and the frightening criminal underbelly of L.A. While interesting in terms of the culture shown on screen, the film lacks interesting characters and suffers from a messy, yet familiar, plot with major shifts of tone. The concept for the film is interesting, but unfortunately the execution ultimately seems lacking.
The film follows David, played by Bobby Soto (The Quarry), a “tax collector” of sorts who goes around L.A. collecting his share of money from the profits the members of his gang make. Joining him on these runs is his friend “Creeper” (Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy), a rough-and-tumble, stone-cold killer who enjoys the thought of anyone around him dying. Together, the two inspire fear and compliance in all the gang members they collect from, using threatening consequences to persuade obedience. A family man, David doesn’t typically fear for his family’s safety with his high position and intimidating presence. However, when a rival gang boss shows up in L.A. and begins to upend the business, David finds that he and everything he loves is now in danger.
The film’s strongest aspect is surely its depiction of L.A. gang culture and the many secret codes and rituals they have. The film shows some interesting religious rituals gang bosses undergo before a big battle, hand signals and secret lingo they use to talk to each other when they believe they are being watched or listened to, and other subtle little things that gangs do that are surprising to the average viewer. The film also features exceptional cinematography, strong visuals, and quality sound design. The action scenes in the film are fine … with a few featuring an interesting slo-mo effect.
Unfortunately, the most important aspects of the film – the characters, story, and performances – all leave a bit to be desired. David is a character that the audience can root for, for sure: he cares about his family and has a great relationship with his wife and kids. He is also compassionate towards others, even those he tries to intimidate. However, David is perhaps the lone interesting character in the film. Plus, when it comes to that intimidation, Soto’s performance is sometimes a bit off, as I don’t buy him as intimidating at all. When David gets angry, too, it seems a bit awkward with Soto’s delivery. Most of the other characters are just angry, vile meatheads in essence … and their performances are forgettable. They’re your typical tough guys who like to kill and talk a lot of smack. Creeper has some interesting character moments, and Shia LaBeouf’s performance is better than I thought it would be, but at the end of the day he, too, is a bloodthirsty, arrogant character. It sometimes gets difficult to root for anyone in this film other than David. The main villain of the film is also not nearly as intimidating as he should be, for even when he commits his vile acts his demeanor just seems strange and careless.
The story has a major tone shift in the middle of the film, and it never really recovers. The first half of the film builds up some interesting plot devices, some of which aren’t explored at all in the second. The film is very fast-paced and jumps all over the place, never really letting the viewer catch their breath and take in what they’ve just seen. The film is predictable at many points, including the conclusion, which also leaves some loose ends. On a technical note, there are a few dialogue scenes in the film that seem obviously recorded using ADR (Automated Dialog Replacement). Some of the words characters speak seem strange and have a tone unlike the place they are currently in. The film also overuses slo-mo a bit towards the end and has too much music playing throughout. In almost every scene there is some kind of score, even when it seems there should be silence.
Overall, The Tax Collector is just another crime thriller involving gangs. It’s not a bad film, it just isn’t really remarkable in any way. The Latinx gang culture is very interesting to see on screen, and some of the scenes are actually intense and thrilling. However, it is difficult to get invested into the story or into any of the characters besides David. I can see what Ayer is going for, but the execution – on a writing and directing standpoint – just doesn’t hit home for me. Ultimately, The Tax Collector ends up in debt with uninteresting supporting characters, a messy script, and some strange, out-of-place performances weighing it down.