Say what you will about David Ayer but he knows how to get your attention.
While he has dabbled in recent years in more ‘studio fare’ such as DC’s widely panned Suicide Squad and Netflix’s Bright, Ayers success as a storyteller has always depended on his ability to push boundaries and build intensity. With The Tax Collector, the writer/director brings back the bullets and blood with a story that is both intense and gripping.
The Tax Collector returns writer/director Ayer to the streets with a dark and gritty look at the Los Angeles drug wars. Working as muscle for a local criminal kingpin, ‘The Wizard’, David (Bobby Soto) and Creeper (Shia LeBoeuf) are charged with collecting the protection ‘taxes’ from local drug dealers. Off duty, David is a loving husband and father who tries to keep the criminal world separate from his home life. However, when new drug lord Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin) tries to force his way into Wizard’s territory, the rivalry takes a dark turn and David is forced to decide where his allegiance truly lies.
With The Tax Collector, Ayer looks more comfortable behind the camera than he has in years. When he’s free from the expectations of studio franchises, Ayer is often at his best. While subtly isn’t word that’s associated with his work, his signature style of brutality can create intense and truly fascinating worlds that are worth exploring. (In fact, this need to express himself graphically may also be why his work on PG-13 franchises such as Squad and Bright have been met with lukewarm to negative responses.)
As such, just like much of his earlier work, Tax Collector is not for the faint of heart. With a tone that’s closer to End of Watch than Suicide Squad, Ayer unleashes his violent visuals with both barrels. Although many directors use gun-play and blood splatters to thrill the audience, he uses it here to disturb, showcasing the all-devouring evil of the opposing gangs. Leads Soto and LeBoeuf (who also worked with Ayer in 2016’s Fury) work well together as loyal but lethal partners, David and Creeper. Though both men appear menacing at ‘work’, their characters never fully lose their humanity and appear genuine in more intimate scenes.
With this in mind, the most fascinating aspect of Ayer’s film is the clear religious lines drawn within the gang wars themselves. Charged with extracting what is owed to ‘the Wizard’ by any means necessary, David and Creeper are feared by those they visit. Yet, despite the brutal nature of their jobs, David remains devoutly religious, praying for his family’s safety and trying to honour his faith. (Admittedly, there’s a certain sense of irony that David is willing to threaten people for money yet he struggles with the ‘demonic’ use of yoga.) Whereas Creeper may be the one who performs most of the actual violence, David seems to view his character as an agent of righteous justice against those who have broken the code of ‘the way things are done’.
In The Tax Collector, honour and righteousness are one and the same.
What’s more, David’s strength of spiritual character is held in direct juxtaposition to the villainous Conejo. For example, although David with a sense of righteous honour to ensure that people obey, Conejo plays by his own rules. As he rises in power, Conejo is portrayed as the fullest depiction of demonic evil, complete with ritual sacrifice. At the expense of everyone who stands in his way, power and control remain his only goals.
However, held in contrast to the darkness of Conejo, David is shown an angel of light, maintaining the purity of his soul yet empowered to inflict God’s wrath when needed. Caught between two worlds, David’s heart yearns for love and yet his hands are prepared to dish out Old Testament vengeance. As things begin to escalate between the two men, the lines begin to blur and David must decide what it means to be a man of honour. (In fact, he and his crew even suggest that their revenge is a way for them to ‘cleanse themselves of sin’.)
Despite being visceral and brutal, The Tax Collector is a return to form for Ayer and showcases what an intense storyteller he can be when given the opportunity. Collector may operate within a world without law but Ayer gives it a moral code and spiritual heart that are compelling to watch.
The Tax Collector is available on VOD on September 8th, 2020.