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Shia LaBeouf Is Big Enough to Fail Again

His new VOD movie, ‘The Tax Collector,’ will disappoint you. That’s as much a testament to his recent successes as it is a knock on the film.

RLJE Films/Ringer illustration

So there’s a gritty AF new VOD B-movie called The Tax Collector in which Shia LaBeouf plays a vicious L.A. drug-war enforcer named Creeper who says things like, “Put the fuckin’ fetti on the table right now, it’s your Last Supper, I promise you, my boy.”

LaBeouf got a giant IRL chest tattoo for the role, plus his character’s name splayed across his abdomen; Creeper also has a gnarly case of cauliflower ear and an accent flamboyant enough that the movie’s trailer drew accusations of brownfacing. (Creeper is supposed to be white, but descriptions of the character in early reviews run the gamut from “flavorful dialogue” to “racist caricature.”) And I am telling you not to watch this movie, because it is very bad, and yet I totally understand why you might want to watch it, because this whole thing is a mess, and just the sort of mess we’ve historically enjoyed watching Shia LaBeouf try to claw his way out of.

The Tax Collector, out Friday, was written and directed by David Ayer, he of 2016’s Suicide Squad (do not #ReleaseTheAyerCut) and Netflix’s baffling 2017 Will Smith–as-a-unicorn-cop situation Bright. (I’m exaggerating, but not by much.) LaBeouf and Ayer first hooked up for 2014’s super-gnarly WWII tank drama Fury, and The Tax Collector is likewise dedicated to taking it Way Too Far as an operating principle.

Creeper serves as the extravagantly menacing henchman to David (Bobby Soto), a semi-tough family man whose job is to quote-unquote collect taxes from exactly 43 L.A. street gangs. This involves a lot of driving around and watching people act super scared of LaBeouf. “I heard you the devil,” one quivering prole mumbles. “I might be,” Creeper replies, menacingly.

I would complain that we never find out what makes this guy so terrifying—save a few quick abstract shots of him, say, calmly smoking in a hazmat suit next to a blood-splattered wall—but I don’t really want the details, and neither do you. “Let’s take their money,” Creeper enthuses, referring to one of the 43 L.A. street gangs. “I already fucked every bitch in their hood.” He’s got a svelte gray suit and a severe goatee and an excessively formal manner and a taste for windy faux-badass speechifying. Here he is chilling at a Godfather-type wedding:

God doesn’t exist. I’m a product of evolution, David. I’m supposed to terrorize the herd. That’s my function. That’s the knowledge I was born with. You know, I’ve seen so many motherfuckers die, so many, and when the lights go out, it’s just a pile of fuckin’ meat left. That’s it. So I know when I die, I die, that’s the end of the book. I’ve seen so many motherfuckers begging, pissing, shitting themselves for one more fuckin’ second of life, and when I’m there pulling their card, I’m their god, when I’m there. When I’m there, I’m god.

This is Shia LaBeouf saying all this, just to reiterate. A mean-looking lady with a gun interrupts this reverie; various types of menace are conveyed. The lady departs. “I ain’t gonna lie, my boy,” Creeper allows. “I’m intrigued as fuck.”

Likewise! You would not describe the past three years or so as a “LaBeoufaissance,” exactly, but he remains an exceptionally strange leading man who does his best work when he lets somebody else lead. The Tax Collector is worth neither your time nor his tattoos. But taking big swings—like, huge, ill-advised, flagrantly Method-y swings—is what this guy does, and even when he whiffs entirely, you can still enjoy a nice breeze.

He won a Daytime Emmy at 16, for the lovable Disney Channel farce Even Stevens; he won the rest of America’s heart a few years later, in 2007’s Transformers, which has aged terribly in every respect save his winsome little mouth-oh-my-god-and-bite-your-forearm move. What a cheeseball. What a star. The world needed somebody to credibly deliver the line, “I’m cool with, y’know, females working on my engine—I prefer it, actually.” So why not him?

LaBeouf’s very brief stint as a conventional matinee idol—Disturbia, yes; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, absolutely the fuck not—doubled as the death of the very idea of a conventional matinee idol. This was the Wild Wild West of the mid-to-late 2000s, with its glut of loud and stupid movies every bit as terrible as Wild Wild West, and the utter dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—in which the roles matter far more than the stars playing them—was, as the saying goes, inevitable. LaBeouf did three Transformers movies to harrowingly diminishing returns, and tried to seize various Leading Man torches from the likes of Harrison Ford (absolutely not), Michael Douglas (not really), and Brad Pitt at his grittiest (maybe). But he always made way more sense in a movie called Nymphomaniac than he did in a movie called Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Meanwhile, the performance art. (That 2015 bit where he livestreamed himself watching all his movies in reverse chronological order was pretty dope.) The tabloid follies and brutal spats with his various costars. (Ford called him a “fucking idiot” for trashing Crystal Skull.) The Method acting stunts. (For Fury, LaBeouf slashed his own face and had one of his front teeth pulled.) And of course, the various police encounters, culminating in his mortifying racist rant after his 2017 arrest, in Savannah, Georgia, for public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and obstruction. “White privilege and desperation and disaster,” as LaBeouf explained it to Esquire in a 2018 cover story, after a well-chronicled stint in rehab. “It came from a place of self-centered delusion.” Also: “It was me trying to absolve myself of guilt for getting arrested.” Also: “I fucked up.”

By then, LaBeouf was on the redemption/comeback trail, promoting his role as John McEnroe in the dour 2017 tennis drama Borg vs. McEnroe as only he could. “I have no interest in tennis,” he informed Esquire. “Zero. I only hate it more since having done this film. It’s an elitist sport.” (The real-life John McEnroe, meanwhile, complained that LaBeouf “has no muscles in his legs.”) But his theoretical rebirth started in earnest with 2016’s American Honey, Andrea Arnold’s long and lurid and luscious teenage-road-trip saga that bursts into flower the second you lay eyes on LaBeouf, dancing to Rihanna’s “We Found Love” in a rundown Kmart, eyebrow pierced, suspenders snapping, phone sparkly, rattail elegantly braided. Who the hell is this? What the hell is going on? Did you know that while they were filming this movie, LaBeouf got two tattoos of Missy Elliott on his knees?

American Honey stars Sasha Lane, then an unknown college student discovered while on spring break by Arnold herself; along with Riley Keough, LaBeouf is one of the very few stars of the film not cast in a strip club or a Walmart parking lot. But what strikes you immediately is how generous a scene partner he can be, magnetic but not overbearing: Like Brad Pitt (yes!), he makes for a fantastic wingman. LaBeouf’s rapport with Lane, even in the sex scenes that could’ve very easily come across as creepy in the extreme, is unforced and quietly stupendous. At one point he explains how to sell magazines to rich people: “You gotta work them. You gotta read them. You gotta be able to scan them and figure them out. Figure what kind of person that person wants in their life, then you gotta be that person.” Spoken like a guy who survived three Transformers flicks.

His two 2019 movies were far more brazen, and in their brazen way just as rewarding. The Peanut Butter Falcon, directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, is the salty and absurdly sweet tale of a young pro-wrestling fanatic with Down syndrome (played by Zack Gottsagen) who flees an assisted living facility and embarks on a Huck Finn–type river odyssey to a wrestling school in North Carolina. LaBeouf plays the deadbeat with the boat, grappling with his tragic backstory and flirting with Dakota Johnson.

We are in perilous Little Miss Sunshine twee-dramedy territory here; this film is like if a ukulele wrote a movie. But the copious scenes of LaBeouf and Gottsagen horsing around a bonfire and practicing their secret handshakes pull you right out of the film and into a much better, less overbearing film. They just seem like pals. (You may recall that they were presenters at the 2020 Oscars.) It is shocking, how rarely that happens in movies. Don’t ever watch press-junket interviews, ever, unless these two goofballs are involved.

And then there is Honey Boy, which Alma Har’el directed and LaBeouf wrote. This latter fact is quite obvious, starting with the early scene in which the big-shot actor Otis Lort, played by Lucas Hedges, is arrested after a drunken car crash and sent to rehab. Then we flash back 10 years to Lort as an adorable 12-year-old child star (played by Noah Jupe) toiling on an Even Stevens–type kid show. LaBeouf plays the kid’s volatile, abusive, recovering-alcoholic father, which is to say his own father, which is to say by the end of this movie Hedges (playing Fake LaBeouf as a troubled young star) is telling troubled veteran star Real LaBeouf (playing his own father) that he’s going to make a movie about him.

You watch Honey Boy in a protective crouch, awestruck at the sheer cringing self-indulgence of it. (Bonus: FKA Twigs, who dated LaBeouf in real life, plays a character named Shy Girl and flirts with young Otis.) But the chemistry between Jupe and LaBeouf, even in the film’s darkest moments, is unbelievable: Together, and with the kid taking the lead, they plow through all the therapeutic self-regard and meta audacity, breaking out of the Look At Us Acting prison constructed by the movie’s volatile star and screenwriter. They are very explicitly not pals, but the more artificial Honey Boy’s construct gets, the more they seem like real people toiling under ridiculous circumstances.

The tragedy of The Tax Collector—one of ‘em, anyway—is that LaBeouf gets no such opportunity to vibe with anybody. Soto is a decent brooding action star, and George Lopez gets to announce that “I ain’t scared of any bitch-made motherfucker.” But our boy Creeper never even gets to show off his tattoos, and his various ramblings about yoga and meditation and mindfulness and microdosing are painful sub-Tarantino filler. “He wants to cut your heart out for sure,” he observes as the movie’s villain finally appears. “You say the word, I’ll push that bitch’s wig back. I’m on it.”

The accent, indeed, is immediately disqualifying. (It is believable that a white sadist would mimic the speech patterns of the people he’s intimidating and brutalizing, but that doesn’t make it bearable.) Ayer attempted some damage control, but it’s not a great sign when a director’s tweets explain a character’s backstory better than the movie does. The Tax Collector is the flick Redbox forces you to rent if you rack up too many late fees; it’s the joyless turkey a fallen matinee idol makes when there are literally no other options, and that’s before you get to the matter of the tattoos. Don’t watch it. But don’t count out the guy who suffers through it, no matter how ridiculous he sounds. Because there’s a small victory in the fact that Shia LaBeouf has once again risen high enough to once again let you down.