In 84 tense minutes, writer/director Jean Luc Herbulot spins together lean, muscular character work and supernatural and social terrors to striking effect.
2003. Amidst the coup in Guinea-Bissau, sleazeball narcotics trafficker Felix (Renaud Farah) is extracted from captivity by the Bangui Hyenas—a trio of legendary mercenaries. The Hyenas—strategist Chaka (Yann Gael, Netflix’s Sakho & Mangane), pragmatist Rafa (Roger Sallah), and mystic Minuit (Mentor Ba)—aim to get Felix to Dakar. When damage to their plane forces them to land for repairs, Chaka leads his crew to a small holiday camp he knows in the Sine-Saloum region of Senegal where they can lay low and resupply.
The Hyenas are welcomed by the camp’s affable operator, Omar (Bruno Henry), and Chaka’s plan—ingratiate themselves to their host, get what they need to repair their plane, and bug out—is solid. But complications begin to crop up. A deaf-mute sign-language-speaking camp guest named Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen) sees through their cover story almost instantly. A high-ranking cop pops up, allegedly on vacation. Despite its fine food and generally cheerful atmosphere, there’s something subtly off about the camp. And Chaka has a secret—one he’s carried since his glimpsed-in-flashbacks childhood, one whose consequences will be immense.
Saloum is quick, intense, and compelling. As writer/director, Herbulot crafts his picture precisely and skillfully alongside a strong cast. Alongside Gael, Herbulot builds a potent anti-hero in Chaka. He is a man driven by his mission—whether that mission is the Hyenas’ current gig or something more personal. On the job, Chaka is adaptable, creative, and practical. Gael renders this as charismatic steeliness and exciting flexibility in Saloum‘s action sequences.
Off the job, Gael and Herbulot make Chaka far less comfortable. On a practical level, he relies on Minuit’s sleeping powder to manage his increasingly bad hydrophobia. On a personal level cannot bring himself to trust the men who have become his brothers through action and history with a massive part of his history and self. Facing that history is far from easy, and it takes a toll. But still, Chaka pushes forward. In Herbulot’s writing and directing and Gael’s performance, he is a man who has no choice but to push forward.
Gael, Sallah, and Ba weave affectionate, history-rich chemistry between the Hyenas—chemistry they deliberately strain with the distance Chaka’s secret forces between him and his team. They acquit themselves similarly well in their own action sequences, too—Sallah’s Rafa is a more skilled but less flexible combatant than Chaka, while Ba’s Minuit—a significantly older man than his fellow Heynas—opts for observation and pinpoint strikes with sleeping powder and his other specialized tools.
Juhen plays Awa as cautious and both intrigued and frustrated by the Hyenas, someone acutely aware of their failings but perhaps more aware of their better sides than they are. Henry makes Omar a charismatic, amiable presence—one that he and Herbulot complicate with a carefully managed but unmistakable need for control. Saloum‘s ensemble is excellent, and the work they and Herbulot do with their characters is the strongest part of the picture.
Herbulot’s scripting is likewise impressive—particularly the depth with which it explores its core themes while juggling and hybridizing genres. When the supernatural comes into play in Saloum, it is physically and visually creepy in its invocations and mutilations of the human form and conceptually unsettling. Its paranormal terrors are the explicit products of human viciousness that is as recognizable as it is grotesque. Through Herbulot’s writing and direction, this connection strengthens both types of horror. An inhuman power has human motivations, and human depravity will seize upon any opportunities provided to indulge.
Saloum isn’t jump-out-of-chair scary, it’s awful-truth-creeping-up-the-back-of-the-spine scary. And it does so while working in fun horror action sequences that take full advantage of its humanoid-but-not-human monsters, and moving character work from a committed ensemble. In short? It’s a darn good picture, one well worth checking out.
Saloum is now playing in select theaters and arrives on Shudder on Thursday, September 8th.