Family is sacred.
I often wonder how writer/director David Ayer‘s films will hold up considering so many of them deal with race relations on the streets and dirty cops. I have to believe Fury (my favorite of his) will stand up best, but what about Harsh Times? What about End of Watch? What about the script that vaulted him up the Hollywood depth chart, Training Day? I’m afraid to find out since I loved each one of them upon their release. I therefore hoped The Tax Collector would help me avoid looking back. I hoped it would show an artist who recognizes what’s happening today and understands the need to evolve. Instead I got a film that feels fifteen years old—one that may just confirm my aforementioned fear.
It didn’t start that way, though. Cheesy text graphics driving home that David Cuevas (Bobby Soto) cares about family above all else aside, following a day in his life as a tax collector for incarcerated kingpin “Wizard” delivered exactly what you want out of an Ayer film. We see this family man in his natural habitat surrounded by his wife (Cinthya Carmona‘s Alexis) and two children. We meet his psychopathic partner-in-crime Creeper (Shia LaBeouf in full-on Latino appropriation mode without any backstory to explain whether he grew up in it, adopted the mannerisms like white boys love doing, or is supposed to actually be playing someone with Mexican heritage) and watch the two shoot the shit while making their rounds. It’s violent, funny, and heightened slice of life.
Place it beside the titles above and it fits perfectly until you realize a plot needs to enter the equation at some point. That’s when things start going off the rails to lean more towards the deeply flawed Street Kings with random asides that conveniently prove relevant much later on and half twists winking about their importance early despite holding their full truths until the eleventh hour. We know David’s a “good” guy regardless of the blood on his hands so why make a point of showing it where the Bloods (led by Cle Sloan‘s Bone) are concerned if not to eventually need their help? We know “Wizard’s” refusal to speak with David holds meaning, but it happens early enough to prove a major distraction devoid of payoff.
Both those things only work in the moment because they’re two details of a long day with numerous moving pieces. David is juggling his responsibilities in the street (collecting tax on transactions controlled by an intricate web of lo-fi and hi-fi surveillance so nobody is able to cheat the system without the system finding out) and at home (readying for his niece’s quinceañera and sometimes needing to use his clout to assist in running the celebration as smoothly as possible). So of course he’s going to be pulled in multiple directions. Of course we’re going to discover new facts we didn’t know and watch other dominoes fall as a result. But there’s a difference between a moment proving crucial to exposition and those sore thumbs sticking way out.
This is especially true once our antagonist Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin) arrives on-screen. His entrance as the leader of a hostile takeover cleans the slate so to speak by capping off a trying day to become the major focal point of everything that follows. We no longer care about the Bloods. We no longer care about a new lieutenant who might be skimming from the top. And we no longer care about a birthday party beyond its ability to put all of “Wizard’s” players (including George Lopez as David’s connected uncle) in one setting when Conejo makes his first move. Now it’s about revenge and the slippery slope that pits loyalty to the game against loyalty to family. The first becomes prideful. The second becomes naïve.
And that juxtaposition works too. A lot of The Tax Collector does before it’s bogged down by misjudged sentimentality. None of that family talk goes away to become implicit to the whole. It gets shoved in our faces time and time again to the point where you could probably make a drinking game from it. How can we not therefore wonder why David doesn’t pack up and go? How can we not wonder why he didn’t use his connections earlier when all signs pointed to Hell the moment Conejo starts asserting his power (steeped in demonic sacrifice rituals that go a little too far in making this a God versus Satan parable considering none of these people deserve to even see the pearly gates let alone cross through)?
Our head goes on a constant swivel waiting for inevitabilities David is blind to seeing thanks to that sense of pride and naiveté. Ayer seems to want his journey to be one of self-discovery, but the cost is way too steep to provide anything but defeat regardless of the outcome. Are we supposed to root for him and Bone when they team up in a superficial alliance between Brown and Black? Are we supposed to be surprised when the most interesting conversation occurs just before the credits with unearned complexity considering we’d literally waited ninety-minutes to experience it? No matter how many soaring montages of loving memories you use, David is as much a monster as he is “good.” Let him be both. The internal war is boring.
So if we don’t care about David’s path (the lack of backstory outside hackneyed surprise revelations says the script doesn’t either), we must care about Conejo. But who’s he beyond a few lines of disposable dialogue? Nothing. He’s a boogeyman that has to die. I give Ayer credit for allowing him to earn that title with a bloodbath in his wake, but he’s more one-dimensional than our hand-wringing protagonist. Both serve roles. Both David and Conejo exist solely upon the pre-programmed track to which they’ve been glued. That’s simply not enough anymore. You can’t just put stereotypical archetypes on display and let them fulfill their destinies without a single deviation. That’s what films did two decades ago and why I’m afraid I might discover it’s all Ayer has ever done.
 (L-R) Shia LaBeouf as Creeper and Bobby Soto as David in the action / thriller THE TAX COLLECTOR, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of Justin Lubin.
 (Left) Jose Conejo Martin as Conejo in the action / thriller THE TAX COLLECTOR, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of Justin Lubin.
 (L-R) Jose Conejo Martin as Conejo and Cheyenne Rae Hernandez as Gata in the action / thriller THE TAX COLLECTOR, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of Justin Lubin.