Shia LaBeouf has had his finest string of performances of his career these past two years. In 2019 he shined playing his own father in Honey Boy and as the best friend of a man with Down syndrome in The Peanut Butter Falcon. And he does it again here, as his performance in David Ayer’s The Tax Collector is one of his best. He plays a character so outside of his normal scope that it’s startling. He’s intense and scary, and never smiles, yet still manages to bring a humanity to the role in a way that few others could, thus adding to his ever-growing range as an actor.
His face may be on the poster, but Shia takes on the sidekick role in this film. The star is Bobby Soto as David Cuevas, a tax collector for a crime lord in South Central Los Angeles. The film presents the intricacies of the gang operation through a quick montage early on, but is focused more on the personalities of guys like David.
David never fires a gun. He has his muscle, Creeper (LaBeouf), do all that. LaBeouf takes on the unique role with full commitment. Creeper is a white boy who grew up in the hood and loves killing people, but does so only on David’s command. You can tell a lot about Creeper even from his limited screen time. His cauliflower ear says something about his doggedness and his scowl shows how truly empty he is. David isn’t only a colleague, but a confidant. They don’t share the same religious beliefs (David firmly believes in God and Creeper is an atheist), but nonetheless, they are brothers.
Soto has been around for awhile, but this is definitely his come out role. He does an excellent job navigating the emotional trajectory of David, never once tapping into cliched acting choices. Tax Collector is intense and serious, but LaBeouf and Soto’s kinetic energy and chemistry bring a charisma to the film to make it, dare I say, fun.
If you’re a Christian, you’ll likely recognize just some of the Biblical and spiritual symbolism throughout the film (the story is about a religious tax collector, after all), though most of the metaphors are much less overt. The entire movie is a parable on faith and Christianity.
The ambiguous ending is a fulfillment and culmination of David’s spiritual journey through fire. One where he struggles with a boss who never speaks to him, yet is constantly testing him. That boss is his father, referred to as Wizard (Jimmy Smits). David is lower down in the ranks—a tax collector who uses the connection to his crime lord dad to instill fear in the local gangs and business owners he collects from. They’re buying the protection of Wizard. In turn, David is feared and respected, but just based on his name.
David is untouchable because of his bloodline, and gang life is almost too carefree for him, until one day, his dad’s former rival, Conejo (Jose “Conejo” Martin) comes to town to challenge the business and begins collecting his own dues. David is tempted by Conejo, a devil-worshipping rival of his father, to leave the family business and come work for him. Conejo tries exploiting David’s insecurities about his father: How he never speaks to him and how, if Wizard wanted to give David all the power, he could with the snap of his fingers. Yet, he keeps him as a lowly tax collector.
David is very Catholic. His spirituality guides him through his trials. He does some terrible things, yet we see him have a conscience. His faith helps him to see right from wrong, even if he doesn’t always act accordingly. He can see the parallels between Conejo and the devil. He’s keen to his tricks. David is a family man with loyalty, and also knows that just because you don’t hear someone’s voice doesn’t mean they’re not there with you, always watching and protecting. He has faith.
Ayer, who writes and directs, doesn’t hammer any of these points into our heads. In fact, the depth of these themes will likely fly too far under the radar for most viewers to notice what it’s doing. Tax Collector doesn’t turn into a Jesus-figure allegory, but shows how one man’s faith in God helps him, whether directly or by illuminating the parallels, in every aspect of his life, even if he’s done some horrendously terrible things.
Beyond depth, this is a movie that plays with the typical gang flick formula, even if we’ve seen a similar dynamic before (from the same director, no less). This isn’t about a guy moving up or down in the ranks in a crime organization, but someone who’s content with remaining in his lower position if it means his loyalty to his family stays intact; someone who trusts the process; someone who doesn’t kill, but blurs the line by having someone else do it instead. David has to learn how to be on his own and walk through the valley of the shadow of death. You want to root for this guy despite his flaws.
I can see how the director’s style may not appeal to everybody. It’s shaky, chaotic, violent, and raw. However, those aesthetics work well for a movie like this, balancing the gritty content with a poetic flow. Ayer doesn’t use cheap manipulation tactics or tricks to get us to feel a certain way. Every move makes sense to the plot and the overall objective. There are moments where Ayer uses cheesy flashbacks and cutscenes, which can detract from his overall slick tone, but those are few and far between. The film remains mostly well-paced and ratchets up for a big finish.
The Tax Collector isn’t going to throw itself at you, but it still presents an incredibly deep and complex look at a little-seen world of chaos and conflict. It’s a film that, on the outside, could be mistaken for just another cookie-cutter action flick made to exploit gang life in Los Angeles. For Ayer, a director who lives and breathes this genre, this is much more in the line of Training Day than Suicide Squad, thanks to great performances from its diverse cast, especially the nearly unrecognizable LaBeouf. But if you clean off the top, just a little bit, you just might see the layers and layers underneath.