Written and Directed by Jean Luc Herbulot.
Starring Yann Gael, Evelyne Ily Juhen, Roger Sallah, Mentor Ba, Bruno Henry, Marielle Salmier, Babacar Oualy, Ndiaga Mbow, Cannabasse, and Renaud Farah.
2003, three mercenaries extracting a drug lord out of Guinea-Bissau are forced to hide in the mystical region of Saloum, Senegal.
In 2003 during Guinea-Bissau’s bloodiest military coup, Saloum (coming from writer and director Jean Luc Herbulot, with Pamela Diop receiving a story credit) offers much to sponge up. It’s equal parts child soldier revenge flick, an immersive and artistically directed (boasting beautiful picturesque photography from Gregory Corandi) pulp-actioner with distinct characters, a thrilling game of secrets, and a supernatural horror tale weaving together its central themes.
Saloum is also only 80 minutes without credits, meaning the script rampages through its course, functioning as a South African spaghetti western with a mythical touch. There’s no denying that the film is pulling from various influences, but the superb execution of those ingredients results in a uniquely thrilling experience.
A trio of mercenaries dubbed Bangui’s Hyenas is tasked with snatching and grabbing drug runner Felix (Renaud Farah) in the aforementioned war-torn area (a stunningly suspenseful opening sequence depicting a tracking shot of the mercenaries slowly making their way past a trail of dead civilian bodies). The mission is successful, at least until the extraction plane runs low on fuel, forcing squad leader Chaka (Yann Gael turning in an exceptional performance balancing swagger alongside PTSD effects of a man tortured to hell and back) to land the titular Saloum (a region in Senegal).
Alongside partners Minuit and Rafa (played by Mentor Ba and Roger Sallah, respectively), Chaka brings the team to a nearby camp run by Omar (Bruno Henry). The plan is to rest up and obtain some fuel, blending in with the locals. However, with the arrival of a police officer and a mute-deaf woman, both with ulterior motives for the group. As tensions rise, Omar shares some information on how this camp operates; rather than paying money, residents are assigned chores to keep the locale thriving.
Since Saloum throttles along, there is not much time to explore this dynamic and some character backstories, but the ideas in place are effective. The same could be said for the motivations of these characters. But once Saloum takes off as a revenge story regarding the horrors of child soldiers interwoven with attacks from swarming, evil spirits, it’s an intense ride, although one that abandons some outstanding aspects of its first half. Without giving too much away, senses such as sight and sound come into play for survival, forcing characters to get crafty, so there is still some cleverness to the execution.
There’s no issue with Saloum effectively switching up genres every 30 minutes, but one wishes each section had a little more meat to chew on. The upside is that Jean Luc Herbulot’s direction is so absorbing and occasionally visually haunting that the gist of the story still packs a punch. It also helps that Bangui’s Hyenas exude coolness, even in the face of rising danger.
Saloum is a mashup of Western and horror conventions that, together, feels fresh and stylistically compelling, even if it’s debatable the narrative needed a sharp turn into horror territory.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]