Earlier this year, Jordan Peele’s “Nope” garnered box-office success and critical acclaim for itself. On the surface, it told a story about an alien invading a small town and a brother-sister duo dealing with it. Upon digging a little deeper, it evolved into a story about the brother seeking revenge for his father’s death, which was caused by the alien. After sitting with the film for a while, it also started to seem like a story about the disrespect that animals in the entertainment industry face. An apparently disconnected subplot about a ranch owner commented on how people exploit trauma for money. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any deeper, another layer appeared to talk about the erasure of black artists in cinema and the brother and sister’s attempt to rectify that. And if there’s one movie that I can recommend watching with it as a double feature, it is “Saloum.”
Directed and co-written by Jean Luc Herbulot, along with co-writer Pamela Diop, “Saloum” is set amidst the 2003 Guinea-Bissau coup d’état. It follows a trio of legendary mercenaries who go by the name Bangui Hyenas – Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah), and Minuit (Mentor Ba) – as they escape to Dakar with a briefcase full of gold bricks and a drug lord called Felix (Renaud Farah). But they are forced to make an emergency landing as the plane they are fleeing in has apparently been damaged. So, they stash the gold, trek to a holiday camp in Sine-Saloum, and plan to lay low there until they can repair and refuel the plane. The camp is run by Omar (Bruno Henry) and his right-hand man, Salamane (Babacar Oualy). He introduces the trio to the guests there: Younce (Cannabasse), Sephora (Marielle Salmier), and Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen). And they are joined by the local police officer, Souleymane (Ndiaga Mbow).
As you can clearly see, the setting is like a classic Hitchcockian thriller. A (seemingly) unrelated and (mostly) innocent group of people are in a social place together, and there’s a bomb under the table. But instead of talking about the bomb, or running away from it, these folks are partaking in extracurricular activities, talking about destructive post-colonialism, and discussing the contributions of Tupac Shakur. Well, to be honest, there isn’t just one bomb (i.e., the discovery of the fact that Chaka, Rafa, and Minuit are mercenaries) under the table. There are two more. One of them is hinted at when Chaka recognizes Omar and tells him that he hasn’t aged a day. The other one, though, is so well-hidden that when it explodes, it changes “Saloum” from a psychological drama to a full-on horror film with mythological monsters. But since Herbulot and Diop’s writing is so crisp and precise, the shifts in tone feel seamless.
The seamlessness is also a result of Herbulot’s direction; Reksider’s music; Gregory Corandi’s cinematography; the editing by Nicolas Desmaison, Alasdair McCulloch, and Sébastien Prangère; and the work done by the production design, art direction, hair and makeup design, special effects, and visual effects departments. Every time “Saloum” goes from one act to another, there’s a slight shift in the color grading, the camera work, and the editing. The first act, which has a darkly comedic tone, features a lighter color palette, wide frames, and smooth camera movements. The second act, which is intensely dramatic, has a lot of close-ups and is bookended with scenes that take place at night. The third act, which is action-packed and scary at the same time, is very desaturated and gory, and the camera is mostly handheld. But you won’t notice any of it until the very last frame of the film. That’s because Herbulot constantly keeps the spotlight on the Bangui Hyenas.
Without spoiling too much, the movie is about Chaka’s personal journey and his relationships with Rafa and Minuit. This is largely explored through the perspective of this trio as they plot and scheme. When they aren’t on the screen, the supporting characters are either seen talking about their notoriety or expressing their urge to join them because of their notoriety. In doing so, you get a 360-degree understanding of who they are, thereby allowing you to form an emotional attachment to them as they go deeper and deeper into the dark heart of Sine-Saloum. And then all of their skill, angst, machismo, and brawn are subverted with a pretty on-the-nose message about the futility of vengeance. Herbulot not only says that seeking revenge is self-destructive in nature, but also warns those who follow vitriolic leaders that they are eventually going to find themselves in a void of hopelessness and aimlessness.
That brings us to the performances in “Saloum.” Every single actor in this film is truly fantastic and so committed to their parts that they become the characters they are embodying. Renaud Farah, Cannabasse, Babacar Oualy, and Marielle Salmier have the least amount of screen time in an already packed film. Yet, they manage to efficiently portray the quirks of their characters. Ndiaga Mbow and Evelyn Ily Juhen’s roles are slightly more fleshed out. The way Mbow shows the decline of Souleymane’s confidence and hold on to the situation is excellent. Evelyn effectively displays Awa’s stubbornness, which is masking her vulnerability. Bruno Henry, as Omar, is perfection, and he really sells his humble innkeeper act. But it’s Yann Gael, Roger Sallah, and Mentor Ba who take the proverbial cake and eat it, too, with Gael getting an extra piece or two. The chemistry between them is palpable. And their command over their dramatic scenes is as good as their ability to wield various weapons.
In conclusion, you must watch “Saloum” just to witness Jean Luc Herbulot jump from dark comedy to thriller to western to the supernatural horror genre and then wrap it all up with a sense of existentialism like it’s nothing. And then watch it all over again because it gives you something new to think about with every single viewing. The film features some of the best performances of the year. In addition to that, it is replete with historical and religious symbolism that grounds the story in its Senegalese setting and gives a sense of weight to the actions of certain characters. That said, there are a lot of inexplicable elements as well, which are purposefully left in that fashion so that you can interpret them in your own way. Or maybe there’s no logical explanation for some of the things that the Bangui Hyenas witness. Maybe, as OJ from “Nope” says, it’s all a bad miracle.