Streaming Review

Saloum review – anarchic and ramshackle West African adventure

Three mercenaries square off against the supernatural in Jean Luc Herbulot's unfocused but ambitious acidic western riff

Saloum mashes together West African folklore, the Hong Kong gun-fu of luminaries like John Woo, and hazy acid-soaked western vibes, in what is certainly one of the stranger offerings to hit streaming services this year. That it doesn’t hit the bullseye – juggling far too much at once and losing control in the process – is as much testament to its ambition as to its ramshackle style. Trying something and failing is far more interesting than aiming for a basic modicum of mediocre good taste, after all.

The set-up is ripped out of the genre playbook of many a spaghetti western or fugitive noir: three Senegalese mercenaries kidnap a drug dealer during a coup in neighbouring Guinea-Bissau. Flying over the border back to Dakar, they are forced to crash land in the Saloum delta of Senegal, where they stay the night in a co-operative village. Unbeknownst to two of the mercs, their leader Chaka (Yann Gael) is harbouring a secret, and from here the film takes a wild left turn deep into folklore, melding with the violent psychological effects of colonialism, with the rampant exploitation of Saloum’s natural resources and cultural history at the centre.

Director Jean Luc Herbulot primarily sticks to broad archetypes with his characters – the three mercs can be variously sorted into the leader Chaka, tough guy Rafa (Roger Sallah) and shaman Minuit (Mentor Ba), whilst the supporting characters aren’t given much more than a personality trait or two. But the strength of Saloum is in its chaotic, psychedelic collapse. As layers of meaning are gradually revealed, with plot stakes escalating, these basic traits come to mean less and less, casting our characters adrift.

The trio become hopelessly lost, their very physical experience of the world unable to cope with the metaphysical and supernatural explosion of the film’s second half, suggestive of a world where the ghosts of the past are nowhere close to being banished. Greed, war and hunger might be endemic to the protagonists’ daily lives, but as Herbulot suggests, these issues have their roots first in the enslavement of West Africans by European powers and later by Senegal’s exploitation by colonial France.

And yet all of this detail passes by almost in a blur. Herbulot doesn’t hold the audience's hands much – trusting us to keep pace with the flurry of plot developments, but this is the rare film which could have done with being a little longer, if only to allow the emotional impact of key scenes to land. The often-shaky hand-held action, with harsh, sun-drenched cinematography, doesn’t always help matters.

With that said, Saloum certainly has a jagged, knife-edged, anarchic aesthetic all of its own, and the leading trio all have an instantly watchable screen presence, helping to anchor proceedings. Even when Saloum careens along at breakneck pace, barely stopping to give you a chance to process what’s going on, there’s a nervous chaotic energy at play that keeps you going. Jean Luc Herbulot is certainly a filmmaker with imagination to spare: all that’s needed is a bit of focus.

Saloum is now available to stream on Shudder.

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