There’s a scene about a third of the way through Saloum, the Senegalese crime-adventure (horror?) film by Jean Luc Herbulot that is perhaps its most-tense, captivating moment, and it’s one without guns loaded or knives out. Our three lead mercenaries, making as quiet an escape as they can with their human cargo, lie low in a rural commune and sit for dinner, feeling out their unfamiliar, unaware bedfellows, when Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), a deaf-mute, calls their bluff.
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Director: Jean Luc Herbulot
Release Date: September 2, 2022 (limited), September 8 (Shudder)
At the dinner table, it becomes apparent that Chaka (Yann Gael), one of our three Hyenas (the moniker attributed to our legendary trio of mercs), knows sign language. The two hold a discrete-yet-apparent nonverbal conversation with this perceptive stranger, who threatens to expose the mercs unless they take her along for safe passage from Saloum, where the dusty commune sits.
The other dinner guests harangue and prod the two – Rafa (Roger Sallah), another of the Hyenas, interjects crudely, fluent in sign himself. Peace eventually befalls the dinner table, if not temporarily. Though we aren’t faced with violence, necessarily, it’s the threat of being on the cusp of something (in this case, the jig being up) that director Jean Luc Herbulot permeates this scene with. A miniature masterclass in high-wire tension without an obvious source of menace like a drawn six-shooter.
The aforementioned mercenaries -the enigmatic Chaka, the blunt Rafa, and the mystical Minuit (Mentor Ba)- are escorting Felix (Renaud Farah), a drug pusher, as a hostage back to some presumably-vicious clients, when their escape plane runs into technical failures, stranding them in search of a new means of exit. Saloum starts with little context, the machinations of its mercs and their work serving almost as an inciting incident rather than the crux of our story. And yet its opening scenes are punctuated with strong camera work (we get some nice, immersive tracking shots) and music to set a tense tempo, as well as flashes of title cards giving us locations and dates. For all of its stylization, Saloum never quite descends into B-movie homage or flashy tricks. Herbulot has a story to tell, and the panache is there to keep things exciting while never distracting from Saloum’s insidious core.
“‘Insidious,’ you say?” The proverbial beans of Saloum’s genre-bending stew might have been spilled. “Horror? What’s so horrifying about three mercs and a hostage in a dusty African crime thriller?” Saloum does indeed veer into the unknown, taking a firm foot in the African continent circa 2003 and plunging the other into a fablelike tale of mysticism. The “what” of Saloum’s twist is better left unspoken, but it certainly impresses with how surprisingly grounded the whole production still feels. Whereas western audiences are perhaps used to the fantastic being more shocking or unexpected, the mystic aspects of Saloum’s world are almost taken for granted by its characters. We aren’t given time in its lean 84 minutes to spend hyperventilating over ghosts and ghouls – the supernatural facts are presented to our band of unlikely commune vacationers and mercs-on-the-march and from then on it’s a game of survival.
The lack of fanfare surrounding its action and threatening otherworldly aspects makes Saloum’s story all the more relatable and human: when our characters aren’t gawking at vampires or mummies (neither of which are present here, I assure you) we, the audience, don’t indulge in the same oohing and ahhing.
The ultimate success of Saloum, perhaps, is tying what might feel like disparate elements into a coherent, meaningful package. A testament to Herbulot’s script, which adapts a story by Pamela Diop. We’re told a tale of brotherhood amidst conflict, with a beating heart pumped with life by strong performances and characterizations including, but not limited to, excellent costuming (check out the footwear on our three leads), casual banter, and the revelation of deep trauma and, perhaps, revenge?
The idea of Saloum being a kitchen sink cocktail of western tropes with a sort of Assault on Precinct 13 tale of horror-survival shouldn’t inspire doubts of bloat or camp: Herbulot isn’t playing the film buff reference game. Instead, we get a meaningful story with real characters, set in a part of the world we might not be familiar with but can immediately relate to thanks to strong direction.
Though there’s of course nothing wrong with love of genre –this all from the biggest Sergio Leone fan you can imagine– it’s refreshing to see something as chock full of guns and grit as Saloum with a sense of humanity and restraint in its style. If there’s a perhaps overly-wistful takeaway to be gained from Herbulot’s film, it’s that there are stories of this caliber just waiting to be discovered and told from the farthest reaches of the globe. Even if you’d buckled up simply for Saloum’s tight pacing and paranormal punchiness, hey, you’re still in for a great time.