The Tax Collector tells a clichéd, reductive gangland story only given bursts of life by a compelling Shia LaBeouf supporting performance.
We need to talk about Shia LaBeouf. It is not infrequent that even the worst movies have some sort of saving grace, be it a lovely score, a gaggle of interesting shorts, or a compelling performance. The Tax Collector is quite bad, but LaBeouf remains the film’s saving grace. Playing a white character in a world of Latino gangsters, LaBeouf manages to simultaneously convey the feel of an outsider, but also the sort of chaotic violence that would be necessary to succeed in such a world.
LaBeouf has had a fascinating run in recent years. His method acting has taken on the stuff of Hollywood lore, but he has become an undeniably effective presence. With the pressure of tentpoles like Transformers removed from his plate, the actor has been freed to pursue projects that clearly speak to him. He has shown admirably commitment to maximizing roles in films that are not infrequently beneath his talents. I would not recommend Man Down or Charlie Countrymen as films, but LaBeouf is doing interesting work.
Recently, it feels as though his passionate method commitment has started to pay off with roles that utilize his anarchic energy with purpose. Brilliant meta-casting saw him bring tennis crazy John McEnroe to life in Borg vs. McEnroe. American Honey saw LaBeouf’s jittery unpredictability as a performer deployed gamely. Honey Boy was his opportunity to deal with the demons of his upbringing, and he brought fascinating menace to a role inspired by his own father. And let’s not forget The Peanut Butter Falcon, which shows LaBeouf’s modern take on Huck Finn – a satisfying, kind-hearted film that nevertheless keeps an edge. All are fascinating performances.
So, when I saw LaBeouf had tattooed his entire chest for this role – including his character’s name, Creeper – embolden scrawled across his torso, I was excited about what he would bring to this role. Clearly, something about The Tax Collector‘s production spoke to LaBeouf, and he is great here. Here, he plays an enforcer for a Latin gang, a man clearly struggling to fit in socially, but with a streak of animalistic violence that suits him well for this world. You believe people would flinch before Creeper’s menacing glare. If only Creeper were the lead of this film instead of just a supporting player, but I digress.
You have perhaps noticed, at this point, that I’ve barely talked about The Tax Collector, and that’s because LaBeouf is the only thing about it worthy of discussion. The rest of the film is a muddled mess of mob movie clichés, populated by actors who would kindly be described as amateurish. The film’s actual lead, Bobby Soto (A Better Life), plays a gangster with a heart of gold who only deals drugs, murders rivals, and tortures local business owners honorably. The performance lacks gravitas or credibility. It’s almost laughable to see Shia’s simmering crazy eyes next to Soto’s soap opera level theatricality. No movie gangster has ever wept more. Cinthya Carmona plays Soto’s wife with all the weight and credibility of a community theater performer. Not one element of their relationship – parenthood, intimacy, Soto’s gangster life – feels credible, and the character is reduced to a pawn in a game of gangland violence.
There is some exquisitely violent action to be had in the The Tax Collector’s final act, but you are likely to be so numb and bored from the rest of the film that it is unlikely to resonate. For reasons that escape me, the movie ends on a cliffhanger suggesting a sequel as well. It is worth seeing LaBeouf’s fascinating work, and it offers some grindhouse-style thrills, but the film’s lack of dramatic weight tanks any consideration of the movie as serious art.