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TIFF 2021: Saloum Review

Three mercenaries, a drug trafficker, and a plane full of gold race off into the cold blue sky as gunshots ring out from the ground below. The plane’s ruptured gas tank starts bleeding fuel, forcing the desperate crew to touch down in the cursed land of Saloum, Senegal, a place of bullets, bloodshed, and restless spirits. Director Jean Luc Herbulot’s Saloum starts at a ten and only ratchets up the intensity from there.

Stranded in Saloum, the three mercs, Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah), and Midnight (Mentor Ba), opt to lay low until they track down tools and fuel. The sooner they’re back in the air, the better. They hide out in an isolated retreat posing as travellers. But in the mystical region of Saloum, nothing stays dead and buried… especially the truth.

Soon after arriving, the mercs discover they’re not the only ones keeping secrets. As tensions come to a head, the encampment explodes into violence, unleashing a deadly supernatural menace. With a malevolent force out for their blood, the only hope for survival means friends and foes must work together.

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I went into Saloum blind. I only knew it was a part of TIFF’s Midnight Madness section. Leaving the theatre, all I could say was ‘Hot Damn’. Saloum’s early press screening smacked me out of my morning stupor. It’s a note-perfect Midnight Madness flick full of larger-than-life characters, colourful dialogue, and wild action sequences. Best of all, the story is full of twists and turns guaranteed to leave you on the edge of your seat.

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Saloum defies easy categorization. It’s a crime flick, supernatural thriller, and a spaghetti western—I’m sure I’m leaving out some key influences. Beneath the movie’s genre-warping surface is a pointed commentary on pain, trauma, and the self-destructive nature of revenge. Herbulot throws in plenty of subtext to unpack, but Saloum’s reflective elements take a backseat to what the film values most: balls-to-the-wall action.

Saloum isn’t a pretty film, but it looks great. There are a handful of gorgeous shots, but DP Gregory Corandi anchors this supernatural world in a gritty, sun-bleached aesthetic. It’s here where Herbulot tips his hand to his spaghetti western influences. Senegal’s Sine-Saloum Delta feels like the very edge of the world, the type of middle-of-nowhere outpost where dusty cowboys would down whiskey and duel at high noon.

Corandi and Herbulot always seek for stylish ways to shoot scenes, with some shots looking like they’re lifted from a manga panel. Their frantic camerawork infuses action sequences with manic energy; kinetic and free-flowing but always easy to follow. When you add in Reksider’s banging score, the intensity metre goes up tenfold. Every song in Saloum slaps.

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Saloum’s breakneck pacing is too fast for its own good. The film resorts to narration and clunky exposition dumps to keep you up to speed on what’s happening. I struggled to keep up with the plot’s whos, whats and whys. It’s a strange problem since Herbulot is so good at showing us who his characters are through their actions.

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The film left me wanting as the final credits hit. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the experience; I just wanted more of it. Saloum clocks in at a brisk 84-minutes and ends rather abruptly. This is the rare case of an action flick needing more padding.

A big part of the movie’s appeal is how screenwriters Herbulot and Pamela Diop create such a rich and vibrant world for their characters to inhabit. The experience feels like stepping into an established world rather than the start of a new story. When the credits rolled, I wanted to know more about Saloum’s world full of gangsters, shamans, and demonic beings. It’s a place where a mystical hex is deadlier than a bullet. More of this, please. This story demands several prequels.

I enjoyed Chaka, Rafa and Midnight’s dynamic, and wanted to spend more time with them. Herbulot does an excellent job of making you feel the weight of the crew’s history. It’s clear they have a long and complicated past together. They push each others’ buttons like only family can. But when it gets down to it, they’ve got each other’s backs. I all caps LOVE the way Herbulot allows these macho guys to get sentimental and show their deep love for one another. We don’t often see strong black action heroes behave this way. It’s a thing of beauty.

Saloum is the best kind of film festival surprise. One of those rare jewels that come out of nowhere to thrill you to the core. The moment I wrap up this review, I’ll scour Herbulot’s IMDb page for more gems, so I’ll be first in line to see whatever he does next.

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Saloum puts the pedal to the metal for 84 thrilling minutes. So buckle up for a genre-bending action-thriller with rock star swagger.

Follow That Shelf for our latest coverage including reviews, interviews and more, live from TIFF – and join in on the conversation on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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