It’s 2003, just a few years out from the Guinea-Bissau Civil War. A military coup is underway to oust president Kumba Ialá. Three mercenaries, known as Bangui’s Hyenas and who are spoken about with mythic reverence, traverse a street strewn with bodies—men, children, no one seems spared—but theirs is a very different mission. With clockwork precision, they enter an apartment where a Mexican drug runner is being held captive, and extract him, along with a bag of gold bricks. They quickly set out on a prop plane to Dakar. But their perfect plan is interrupted when a hole in the wing begins draining fuel, forcing them to land in Senegal’s beautiful, foreboding, remote region of Saloum.
I first saw Saloum, the new film by director Jean Luc Herbulot and his producing and writing partner Pamela Diop, at 9:30 a.m. screening several days into the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. (The movie is currently available to stream on Shudder.) The sparsely attended press screening, the first of the day, was a far cry from the energetic experience of the festival’s Midnight Madness program, in which the film was slotted. That didn’t matter an ounce. From its opening frames, the film’s propulsive editing, beautifully choreographed blocking, succession of startling images, and driving score woke me right up.
For adventurous cinephiles, there is a tradition of West and Central African cinema out there to explore, from Djibril Diop Mambéty’s masterpiece Touki Bouki, to the decades of output that gave Nigeria the nickname Nollywood. But outside of a few choice art-house favorites endorsed by Martin Scorsese, and a stream of soapy productions largely appealing to those on the African continent, the films coming out of places like Senegal rarely travel, and even more rarely hit with non-African audiences. Within its first few minutes, Saloum announces its intention to break the mold, but never at the expense of its roots.
And when I say minutes, I mean minutes. The extraction of the Mexican drug lord is only the beginning of Saloum—literally the first five minutes. From there, the movie morphs. The mercenaries traverse the plains around the Saloum Delta to find themselves at a small resort known to the group’s leader, Chaka, played with ferocity and intelligence by Yann Gael. There they settle in, agreeing to the terms of the resort, which in lieu of direct payment requires its lodgers to participate in daily chores. Under assumed names and posing as miners, the four strangers sit down for dinner and meet the other lodgers.
It soon becomes clear there’s a game of sorts afoot. Chaka has a dangerous secret he’s kept even from his close confidants. A deaf woman who knows a lot more than she lets on poses a challenge. A police officer appears, wily as Columbo. The lodge owner and his assistant are almost too welcoming. An artist couple is there, too, the pretentiousness wafting. And underneath it all an unsettling feeling that Saloum itself is home to a mythic darkness long buried.
The conversation at that dinner table is a marvel all its own. Herbulot weaves together multiple strands, competing character dynamics, and even overlapping conversations in both French and sign language. It’s a heady conversation, political in the best way, each diner bringing to bear their own read on the state of West Africa. When Chaka references the philosophies of Thomas Sankara, the Marxist revolutionary president of Burkina Faso, assassinated in 1987, it’s no mere tossed-off allusion. The film is alive with ideas about West Africa’s history, the ravages of colonialism and post-colonial bloodshed. It directly confronts prevailing western notions about African savagery, while challenging Africans’ own engagement with the politics of the region. And somehow, through all this university-level discourse, the scene plays not like a lecture—this is no dainty Apocalypse Now French plantation scene—but a suspenseful battle of rhetorical will masking the threat of violence.
Halfway through the movie, when Chaka’s secret is revealed and the violence bursts forth, the film shifts again. This switch-up has been hinted at plenty in the film, through whispers about the ancient Kings of Saloum, whose dynasty began in the 15th century and finally petered out in the late 1960s, and whose ghostly presence hovers over everything. Recalling everything from Spaghetti Westerns to Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn, with shades of John Carpenter, Saloum reveals itself in its second half to be, in fact, a supernaturally tinged action movie. And a great one.
At just under 90 minutes, Saloum moves fast, every moment deliberate, every cut fun as hell, and it never lets up. As the characters face the otherworldly reality of their situation, the action crescendos, and Herbulot proves himself adept at crafting sequences and moments that would stand well alongside the best of genre filmmaking. Secure in his vision and determined to bring it to life, he has here established himself as a cinematic force, pulling in a bevy of clear influences—Tarantino, Mann, Bay, and plenty more—and transforming them into something that feels pleasingly familiar and totally fresh at the same time. What’s more, Herbulot and Diop are not content to leave it at mere genre exercise, creating instead a story that continuously expands its thematic horizons as it unspools, landing in a place of earned profundity.
When the events of the film’s second half give a distinct survival advantage to Awa, the deaf woman played with volatile verve by Evelyne Ily Juhen, a clever plot device also becomes the method by which bonds are formed, and more profoundly, expressed. Fleet as the film is, its emotional moments pack a punch, and that’s a testament to Herbolut and Diop’s ability to imbue the action movie text with extra-textual insight. As events unfold, one theme in particular persistently breaks to the surface, and by the end the movie stands as a sharp reflection on the soul-rending and nation-disfiguring nature of vengeance.
“Revenge is like a river,” a woman’s voiceover says in the film’s opening. Completing that thought in its closing scene, the truth of her judgment is found in everything that’s preceded it. Where many familiar revenge tales express the folly of retribution as such, Saloum offers a more complex view. It is the violence of vengeance that unleashes hell, but it is also the target of the film’s central, vengeful act who has been keeping that hell at bay by sickening means. His is a deeper violence, worthy of vengeance in some respects, but more worthy of a reckoning for everyone in his orbit, and those far outside it. Confronted with a seeming impossibility, violence appearing intractable in the face of humanity’s endless atrocities, Herbulot and Diop find no easy answers except truth and solidarity, and having a hell of a good time.