Saloum Film Review

“We say revenge is like a river, whose bottom is reached only when we drown.”

So begins this dark tale of violence steeped in politics and folk horror. A low-budget but gorgeous mixture of His House (2020) and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Saloum opens during a coup in Guinea-Bissau as we watch three menacing figures in ponchos extract a drug lord. Soon after it is revealed that the three figures are our main characters; an elite mercenary group known as Bangui’s Hyenas. Much like Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn, we are following not-so-nice guys–albeit incredibly compelling characters–on their escape, and halfway through things suddenly go very very (and supernaturally) sideways. 

Calling this movie genre-bending is both an understatement and a disservice, as the genres blend together so seamlessly that it is hard to decipher where one genre ends and another begins. Folk horror, biting political commentary, Western film tropes, heist vibes, and an all-out action-packed thriller …….manages to keep an even tone throughout its runtime. Saloum is the perfect example of excellent writing, superb cinematography, and a well-executed exploration of the myriad ways the past can haunt us. 

At the center of the story is Chaka, expertly brought to life by Yann Gael, the charismatic but ultimately terrifying logistical leader of the Bangui’s Hyenas, whose motives are always in question. His fellow Hyena’s are Minuit (played by Mentor Ba), a willful scamp that likes fine clothes (he wears Gucci loafers on the mission for some hilarious reason), and Rafa (played by Rodger Sallah) a calm mystic. They are such interesting characters, both personality-wise and visually, that it’s hard to take your eyes off them when they are on screen. There is a very real sense of camaraderie between them, and even though they aren’t what we would consider the “white hats” of the Western trope, it’s hard not to root for them. 

The setting for the film is the Sine-Saloum in Senegal, a mostly mangrove swamp sprawling delta with sandy beaches that director of photography Gregory Corandi displays in stunning visuals. Sweeping shots of our main characters traversing desert-like beaches and aerial views of a boat ride through jewel-blue twisting rivers will take your breath away, but equally stunning are ominous blue-tinted shots of our main characters at night, or a pink saturated sunset perfectly framing the Hyenas. The visual effects used for the second half of the film are on the low-budget side, but no less effective because of it. Action sequences aren’t just easy to follow, but highly stylized with innovative framing and clever direction for the actors. Little nuances, like the Hyenas marching upstairs in time to jaunty West African music in the opening sequence, show Herbulot’s attention to every detail on screen.

A distinctly West African soundtrack plays through much of the film, adding to an already strong sense of place. Every element of Saloum is uniquely West African and Senegalese, from the music to the history, from Rafa’s mysticism to the supernatural elements, and from the many political strifes explored to the environmental crisis faced by the region; Herbulot succeeds in using familiar tropes to create a film that is wholly Senegalese and West African.

At the end of the day, the highest praise I can give this film is that is a blast to watch from beginning to end. Very little time is wasted on unnecessary dialogue or scenes. The twist is such a wild ride, but speaks to the first half of the film, utilizing the core themes of the story, so that even if it is jarring it emphasizes everything that has come before instead of overshadowing it. I also cannot overemphasize how fun the characters are, especially for fans of grittier films where we follow bad guys on a mission who ultimately have to face a bigger baddie.

Jean Luc Herbulot has created a roller coaster film that drops into a free dive as soon as the audience begins to get comfortable. Make sure to check out this absolute gem of a horror movie, now screening at the Overlook Film Festival and hopefully coming to a streaming service near you. 

We Watched Saloum as Part of The Overlook Film Festival 2022 Line-up


Past Festival Coverage