“We say that revenge is like a river whose bottom is reached only when we drown…”
…I’m more of a revenge is best served cold guy myself, but the meaning of the two is the same: Vengeance consumes us all. In writer/director Jean Luc Herbulot’s West-African genre-bender Saloum, which just premiered at Fantastic Fest, vengeance isn’t the only thing which our protagonists are in danger of being consumed by.
In Saloum, we meet Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah) and Minuit (Mentor Ba), a trio of mercenaries known as Bangui’s Hyenas, in the midst of fleeing a coup with drug-lord Felix (Renaud Farah). After they find their plane shot down, the team takes refuge at a holiday camp in the mystical region of Saloum, Senegal, where dark secrets and other horrors are soon revealed. Lucky for them, they’re a bunch of badasses who are ready for it. Mostly.
What follows is a spiritual journey through a sweaty hell that blends western action, vengeance and the supernatural in a cinematic cocktail guaranteed to put hair on your chest. Or wherever.
Saloum opens like a strange dream, showing us a boy in chains wandering into a vast body of water at sunrise as a voice (Alvina Karamoko) delivers a monologue on vengeance and drowning. Coupled with a hypnotic score from Reksider that alternates between a calm mysticism and frantic, tense drumming, the moment is utterly captivating. That’s partially thanks to Gregory Corandi, whose gorgeous cinematography works wonders throughout the film. The scenic images of various landscapes are stunning, belying the horror that waits underneath the sun-soaked beauty.
Herbulot and Corandi transport the audience to a place that many of them may not be familiar with, the harsh reality of West-Africa. Immediately after the opening sequence, we are thrown into a chaotic battle in which the Hyenas get their man Felix, fighting their way through a crumbling city drenched in blood, bodies and smoke. The scene simultaneously demonstrates Herbulot’s skillful direction, presenting the action with a unique style that plays out almost like a dance. The actors, music and camerawork all move together with a rhythm as coordinated as synchronized swimming, but, you know, cool.
Speaking of cool, the Hyenas are a bunch of sexual tyrannosaurs, and yes, that’s a Predator reference. Chaka, Rafa and Minuit are all fascinating characters, with engaging performances from Gael, Sallah and Ba, respectively. Separately, they all embody different elements of the team, with Chaka as the brains, Rafa as the brawn, and Minuit as the mystic who seems to know more than everyone else, but together, they are a brotherhood. These guys are more than the tough mercenaries they appear to be. They care about each other, and you care about them.
The takeaway here is that West-Africa, at least what we are shown, is not the cozy, lazy American lifestyle many of us are used to. The setting of Saloum is a place that is at once breathtaking and unbelievably brutal, a place which forces you to grow up tough. Civilization is scarce. Everyone is sweating bullets. And every turn presents a potential danger. Which is the point, and what makes the first half of Saloum so interesting: the consistent lurking of something sinister underneath a surface of mystic traditions and wonder. Kind of like how vengeance rests inside us like a cancer spreading under the flesh.
The mysteriousness of Saloum is one of its greatest strengths, and why I wouldn’t dare spoil anything for you. From the moment the Hyenas arrive at the camp and are greeted by definitely hiding something Omar (Bruno Henry), nothing feels right. Not the suspicious guests staying at the camp, and definitely not the strange shadows darting around in the dark. Many of Saloum’s best moments come during this first half, in which Herbulot ratchets up the tension again and again with each new reveal and suspenseful scenes of secrets threatening to burst out. Saloum is the kind of movie that leaves you so far off the edge of your seat that you realize you’re not even on the chair anymore.
Saloum self-proclaims itself as Predator meets From Dusk Till Dawn, and it’s easy to see why. While the film isn’t quite as explosive as Predator or as fun as From Dusk Till Dawn, it follows a similar pattern to each, in that what starts off as your average action flick abruptly becomes something entirely different (and horrific) halfway through. Unlike those examples though, Saloum’s terror comes more out of left field than From Dusk Till Dawn’s vamps, which is a pretty far out example itself. The changeup is so jarring—and not all that properly explained—that it feels less like a surprise and more like plummeting through the floorboards into a pit of confusion.
I can deal with vague or even nonsensical explanations—I’m a horror fan, after all—but for a film chugging along with a pitch-perfect pacing and tension so thick it’s suffocating, Saloum almost completely fumbles the ball with its second half. What was a rhythmic dance suddenly becomes frantic—and not all that intense or frightening—action horror that struggles to maintain suspense, consistently loses track of characters, and risks deflating entirely with an interesting though not so well executed concept that often left me scratching my head. The most shocking part about Saloum’s second half is how much of a step back it is from the near pitch-perfect first half. Though the film’s bold presentation of the horror taking place entirely in the daylight is one that always deserves to be commended.
Bumpy second half aside, Saloum is a stylish, well-crafted nine-course meal of genre that captivates through rich mysticism and a bristling tension that clamps down like the jaws of a hyena. With Saloum, Herbulot delivers a film that is rough, tough and surprisingly emotional, exploring themes of revenge and the ways in which our past makes prisoners of us all. It isn’t always firing on all cylinders, but when it is, it’s a hell of an experience.
By Matt Konopka