As a kid, my dad took my brother and I to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) to spend the night aboard a retired Navy submarine. OMSI had a great program to educate us about the science and history behind the machine, but I was most excited for us to plunge below the surface and take the submarine for a spin. Imagine my dismay when my dad confessed that submerging was not part of the deal; we spent the night parked safely afloat in the Willamette river, never to explore the possibilities of the hyped-up watercraft. Laying in my 17-inches of bunk, I was deeply disappointed in the shallows of my nautical escapade. The Tax Collector (2020) left me with a similar reaction.
The story follows David Cuevas (played by Bobby Soto), who in addition to being a devout Christian and involved father is an intimidating tax collector for a crime lord in South Central L.A. Watching him conduct brutal business amidst the family’s preparations for a quinceañera had me making connections to The Godfather (1972), as Cuevas is a man living two lives in two worlds he claims coexist. But both lives are threatened when an old enemy of Cuevas’ boss called Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin) comes to town and attempts a takeover. Like those he collects tax from, Cuevas learns that he has his own price to pay and attempts to settle the score before the screen fades to black. There are moments reminiscent of director David Ayer’s previous screenplays Training Day (2001) and End of Watch (2012), but they are lost amidst numerous bad investments in runtime.
The best part of the movie was the interplay between Cuevas and his partner Creeper (Shia LeBeouf), who attends his duty to “terrify the herd” with sick satisfaction and stone-cold stares. Despite his sadistic nature, Creeper is wholly devoted to his partner. When he tells Cuevas, “zI’ll ride with you ‘till the wheels fall off,” you believe him. The complexity of both characters is best shown when they are together; Creeper doesn’t believe in God but has consigned himself to hell, while Cuevas asserts that his own religious convictions and familial devotions allow him “to go into the darkness but come back into the light”. Creeper serves as a foil to Cuevas’ duality, a warning sign that having a foot in both worlds doesn’t work. This concept was fascinating, but it was forgotten as the plot progressed. Consequently, Cuevas ceased to be complicated or compelling. Instead of gripping action, you get a lot of gun-waving and threat-throwing that doesn’t really add to the story or help you care about the characters. The DNA is there, but it’s just sitting in a plain petri dish with no signs of life. A myriad of plot threads with little substance leads to an ending that comes up short, just like Cuevas’ count of the tax collections earlier in the movie.
The biggest problem for me was figuring out the overall story arc. I thought I was watching a critique of the toxic masculinity that keeps a steady death toll in L.A. neighborhoods, but instead the movie seemed to revel in it. The opening credits claim that gang culture is all about love, honor, loyalty, and family, and it seems to really believe it, expounding on it with heavy-handed dialogue. The relationship between the values that the gang preaches and the fruits of their labor form an interesting dichotomy, but any chance of deep exploration is overthrown by random stabs at shock factor. Like when the big baddie bathes in the blood of a young woman and sacrifices a chicken to the devil, or when the bullets start flying and the tally of revenge kills ramps up so fast you lose track. The good guy cries, seethes, and swears, but I was too emotionally checked out to care much.
There’s a part of me that feels defensive of the film because so many critics have condemned it with a mercilessness to match Creeper’s. I especially feel that the claims that The Tax Collector is racist and brownfacing are completely unwarranted. I so badly wanted this movie to be great, but alas it wasn’t so. The character of David Cuevas is described as “a candle in the darkness,” but this film feels more like a shadow of the greatness it could have been and what I wish it was. The great team of collaborators and top-notch trailer got me so excited for a movie that proved to be like my OMSI experience; I expected torpedos and got torpor instead. I can only hope that Ayer’s next venture makes the submarine seaworthy once more.
Recommendation: No Go