'Saloum' Is A Kinetic, Genre-Bending Revenge Story [TIFF Review]

Guns, gold bars, drug lords, military coups, folk heroes, tall tales, and ghost stories. Is there a 2021 film that gives more bang for the buck than Jean Luc Herbulot’s superb “Saloum”? This is not a case of “too much” movie, where the director and screenwriter thoughtlessly stuff as many ingredients into the pot as they can and hope the concoction doesn’t boil over. No one likes a mess on a hot stovetop. Happily, Herbulot knows what he’s cooking and how to treat his varied elements. His secret weapon is harmony, the key to any good genre stew, and real-world history aside, “Saloum” is very much the product of a diverse array of genre traditions: Western and action movies, and horror especially.

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The film opens in the middle of the 2003 Guinea-Bissau coup d’état, which we’ll gently describe as a “regime change” spearheaded by the nation’s military. Herbulot’s telling reframes events as somewhat less than bloodless; his protagonists, Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah), and Minuit (Mentor Ba), the mercenary trio known as Bangui’s Hyenas, have seized an opportunity to make a score and go about a-butchering soldiers in ruined city streets. Their target is a drug lord, Felix (Renaud Farah), plus his bricks of gold, smuggled out of the chaos to safety by the Hyenas. But when the getaway plane takes a bullet, they’re forced to land by the Sine-Saloum Delta river and find shelter at a nearby vacation retreat run by the smiling, magnanimous Omar (Bruno Henry). 

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Omar’s the host with the most. All the same, there’s something off about not only him but the encampment and the surrounding region. Chaka, Rafa, and Minuit determine to get the hell out as quickly as they can, but their best-laid plans have already crashed and burned, so naturally, their improvised plans don’t fare any better. That’s as much, maybe more, as you’ll want to know going into “Saloum.” Herbulot paces the picture like he’s in a mad rush to a vague finish line, but the filmmaking never actually feels hurried thanks to his sense of economy. Every single minute of “Saloum” counts. There’s no waste here, no fat, not a moment where Herbulot fumbles in the dark, and that’s saying something: “Saloum” is very dark, a revenge story rooted in a country built on corpses and atrocities dating back centuries, even beyond.

We don’t watch horror movies for a good, long snuggle, of course, so darkness is part of the pleasure. But “Saloum”s darkness is sourced from horror as well as history. It would make an interesting double feature with, say, “Beasts of No Nation,” though Herbulot wears such a smorgasbord of influences on his sleeve that if you paired “Saloum” with any Agatha Christie adaptation, they’d go together like peanut butter and strawberry jam. The camp’s atmosphere is made up of paranoia and distrust. Everyone’s onto each other, whether deaf Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), one of Omar’s guests, or Souleymane (Ndiaga Mbow), the police chief, whose presence is a most unwelcome surprise for the Hyenas. Even Rafa and Minuit suspect Chaka of keeping secrets from them, though they can’t possibly guess what

So they don’t bother. The guessing is left to the audience, but then again, “Saloum” is such an adrenalizing ride that viewers either won’t care to guess or won’t have a chance to. Herbulot begins with such kinetic style, peppered by muscular camerawork (credit to his cinematographer, Gregory Corandi) and fast cuts (courtesy of his editing team, Alasdair McCulloch, Sébastien Prangère, and Nicolas Desmaisons), that giving in to the experience doesn’t take much persuasion; the filmmaker holds out his hand and we take it without hesitating. When the narrative slows down, at least as much as it ever really “slows,” exchanging that hyper aesthetic with deliberate long takes, the tension set up from the start remains. We know danger lurks in the trees, along the shoreline, and among the nearby village, where locals obscure their ears for reasons unknown. We just don’t know what that danger is, and waiting to find out is a wicked joy. 

But Herbulot’s exacting direction has the biggest impact on his cast, given the difficult task of finding dimension in their characters. Herbulot wrote “Saloum,” too, and every character in the cast has depth on the page; the challenge for his actors is making space in the film’s tight framework to communicate that depth. Some of them, like Gael, have more space than others, but others, like Sallah and particularly Ba, enjoy considerably less, which makes their performance slightly more impressive than Gael’s. As Minuit, Ba is instantly memorable, a gaunt, laconic spiritualist who sees more in the world around him than his peers; as Rafa, Sallah makes an impression, brash, badass, the kind of man you’d want with you in a foxhole. But they do not outshine Gael. They compliment him, and them. The supporting cast is terrific, too, making a lot out of a little just like the leads, and Herbulot weaves them into “Saloum” with an agile hand. 

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In a bitter irony, the details that make “Saloum” so good are the same details that make it an audience picture. Circumstances being what they are, the movie is likely to miss out on finding its audience, and its audience is likely to miss out experiencing it the best way possible: With each other. This is a movie about camaraderie and unity, deep in its soul, even if the pieces that make up the whole tend to relate to lingering barbarity more than the enduring brotherhood of man. That’s a nice way of saying it’d play like gangbusters to a midnight crowd. “Saloum” is tense and, when it kicks into high gear, scary as hell. One day, that crowd will gather before the same screen and bask in what Herbulot, his cast, and his crew have accomplished, marrying reality to folklore to mythology, horror to action to thriller. Until then pray that “Saloum” finds a commercial release, and savor that accomplishment where and when you can. [B+]

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