David Ayer's LA-based gangster picture, The Tax Collector, just released, is a uniquely terrible film - and one that will be a cult classic in ten years.
Reviews rightly observe that the film is ultra-violent, and depicts Latino culture as one enmeshed in a criminal lifestyle, with Shia LaBeouf playing a particularly nihilistic enforcer; as such, it has been summarily dismissed as exploitative, and perhaps borderline racist. These are easy accusations, and miss the mark. It is a terrible film, but also, astonishingly bad, and therefore, most watchable, for any fan of B-movies and crime cinema.
Firstly, let's address the all-Latinos-depicted-are-bad claim - not true. The main character, the Tax Collector for various gangs in LA, David, has many family members who are entirely good, decent people. The film is especially careful to establish a pecking-order, and many people in the community are preyed upon, ordinary citizens; moreover, even the murderous African American gang that works in tandem with David, is portrayed in an unusually sympathetic light. Meanwhile, LaBeouf is not clearly Latino, but someone so outside the normal real of humanity to almost appear supernatural.
All crime family films are set in a time, place, and culture, such as The Godfather, or Scarface - and they show a microcosm as rotten as Hamlet's Denmark; they are never meant to be about one group of people, however, but about all humanity. The story here can be summed up as 'what does it profit a man to win the whole world yet lose his soul' - or, the classic 'on top of the world, Ma' crime doesn't pay theme, of all crime films made in America.
David tells Creeper, because he is a Christian man, he can go into the dark but God lets him come back into the light, a belief that becomes sorely tested by the third act. The plot itself is basic - David is waiting for his father's blessing, to assume command of the empire run from a prison cell by the elder man. Meanwhile, a (Mexican?) Cartel moves in, spearheaded by pure evil agents of mayhem, set to wipe out all David holds dear. Can he survive?
Forget Job. David's world is utterly and shockingly shattered by arguably the most melodramatic and absurd set of criminals ever seen, including an ultra-sexual black magic hit woman with sadistic tendencies, and a Satanic-level bald fully-tattooed maniac that enjoys live human sacrifices before each mission. The violence level is beyond ANYTHING imaginable even, perhaps, for Tarantino, to the point one must consider this pure Grand Guignole.
The best character is Shia's, Creeper, the utterly self-contained, dapper, hitman, who dresses like the lead singer from Depeche Mode crossed with a Ska frontman (skinny tie, suit), who wears shades at all times; his lean, swaggering, snakelike menace is a sheer delight, like Jack Palace in Shane, but this time, he has met his match. Creeper is a nihilist torn obviously from Dostoyevsky's The Possessed (sometimes known as The Devils), who believes in nothing but power and killing (and absurdly mindfulness) but who meets his match when he comes up against a Force of Evil that makes him appear almost Christlike in comparison. In other words, his materialism is no match for the true depths of spiritual struggle life demands.
The film is really a Miltonic exploration of what happens when enough devils, or scorpions, land up in the same hell, or bottle. Who can be top dog in a world gone so wrong? In Stygian gloom, and darkness visible, gradations of evil emerge, and from the shadows, it is possible to glean the faintest hope that David's bloodbath may leave him singed but able to find a way back to God.
I usually abhor reckless violence in films, but this is so clearly designed to display an Elizabethan worldview, with Catholic tendencies, that one is reminded of how violent our greatest dramas are. The Tax Collector may be gruellingly awful, but in its abhorrent abyss lies a strangely glistening morality tale, with a brio so bloodthirsty it compels grudging respect.