Revenge Is Like a River (Movie Review: Saloum)
I’ve seen enough American movies to know what they look and feel like. Odds are you’re the same way. Whether you’ve seen an A24 horror film, an entry in the MCU, or a prestige Oscar contender, you have a pretty good sense of the expected beats. That doesn’t mean that every film released in this country is predictable, but what it does mean is that American movies are generally made with American sensibilities in mind.
There’s a vast and fascinating world of cinema beyond our borders, and one of the most fun aspects is to gauge how those foreign sensibilities are both different and similar to what we’ve got here. It’s not always a slam dunk, though. I was not terribly into the French psychedelic horror drama Lux Aeterna. Is it because I’m a callow and ignorant American? Yeah, probably, and I’m sure there are cultural aspects that went over my red, white, and blue head. The same goes for the not-terribly-amusing Belgian comedy Mother Schmuckers. Did the Belgians find it funny? I have no idea, but God bless ‘em if they did.
For every internationally flavored meh of a movie out there, there are far more fascinating, compelling, hilarious, poignant, and just plain awesome films. If you’re lucky enough for one of those films to show up on your radar, you should zero in on it with a quickness. You’ll know it when you see it, that pulse-quickening sense of, “Damn, I need to see that.” That’s how I felt when I first heard about the Senegalese action/horror/suspense/drama Saloum.
In 2003, a coup takes place in the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau. Historians and journalists would probably say it happened due to a populist groundswell or economic uncertainty. Really, though, the coup is the work of Bangui’s Hyenas, a legendary trio of mercenaries. The elder member is Minuit (Mentor Ba). The hotheaded muscle is Rafa (Roger Sallah). Their leader is Chaka (Yann Gael). When we meet them, they’re walking through the wreckage of a city and passing the many, many people they have killed. Are these guys heroes? I suppose it depends on who you ask.
Bangui’s Hyenas pass the corpses they have slaughtered — some of them children — and proceed to load up quite a lot of gold bars. They also have in their possession Felix (Renaud Farah), a Mexican drug dealer. The plan is for the four of them to escape on a commandeered plane and live out the rest of their lives in sybaritic luxury.
Only they discover the plane is seriously damaged, and they’re being pursued. There’s no other choice but to land, find fuel and resin to repair the aircraft, and hide until the heat dies down. Chaka knows a place, a remote hunting camp known as Saloum. It’s a little unorthodox in terms of payment, and guests do chores for the camp instead of simply paying. Rafa, in particular, is pretty pissed off at the idea of manual labor. What choice do they have?
Things get stranger with the introduction of the camp’s proprietor Omar (Bruno Henry). He’s a welcoming man, and Chaka remarks that they have previously met. Omar doesn’t recall, but soon enough, he will. There’s also the mute Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), who immediately threatens to “expose” Chaka unless they take her with them. If all that wasn’t bad enough, there’s something else watching the camp. Something supernatural, unnatural, dangerous.
Before we go any further, I need y’all to do me a favor. If I win the lottery, don’t tell my wife that I’m giving director Jean Luc Herbulot a few million to make a series involving Bangui’s Hyenas. Herbulot has made a film in the tradition of The Dirty Dozen and From Dusk til Dawn in which a group of morally ambiguous hard cases runs into a problem far worse than anticipated. His action sequences are clean and kinetic, and he allows us to get to know everyone first so that when folks start getting bumped off, it has an impact. More importantly, Herbulot both shows the actions of the Hyenas and shows how others react to their substantial reputation, then puts them in a situation where it doesn’t matter. It’s similar to the unkillable mercenaries in Predator running into a critter that is utterly unimpressed by them.
Herbulot and Pamela Diop’s screenplay is a strong fusion of genre elements and character work. They know we’ll show up to see a band of badasses get put through the wringer, and they also know that in order to care about them, we need to know just enough. The characterization and dialogue give us a glimpse into their heads and make their decisions understandable, whether or not those decisions are wise. Additionally, I loved that the script shows us a little of Chaka’s relationship to Africa’s child soldiers and how that’s shaped him as a person. The melding of the supernatural, genre aspects and African history creates a solid and original screenplay.
The cast is solid, but what interests me is the performances given by Bangui’s Hyenas. For roles like this to work, the actors need to have two things—swagger and vulnerability. In the scenes with Yann Gael, Mentor Ba, and Roger Sallah together, they have natural chemistry and energy. You believe that they could wipe out a small army, and do it with competence. You also believe that these men have a shared history. The only ones they ever shared moments of fear or doubt with are each other, and these actors sell the shorthand acquired by years of experience. In particular, I liked that Yann Gael has a secret he’s hiding. Gael shows how secrets have a way of clawing to the surface, whether he wants them to or not. This role alone should make Gael into a massive star.
I had no idea what an action/horror movie made in Africa would look like. Now that I’ve seen Saloum, I want more of it. The cast and crew weren’t chasing trends or overly relying on special effects. Instead, their film was a synthesis of a strong script, a talented cast, and an innovative director. The end result is one hell of a wild ride, and Hollywood should take notice.