Though largely set on the highways leading from Bamako to Dakar, writer-director Daouda Coulibaly’s Wùlu resembles any number of North American-set films about drug running given its reliance on pat character archetypes, representations of top-down power relations, and sudden bursts of extreme violence. Coulibaly constructs one intriguing deviation from this formula in the form of Ladji (Ibrahim Koma), an ex-con whose decision to transport large shipments of cocaine across national borders is one of necessity and relative silence—a useful contrast to the typically loud-mouthed or boisterous figures of films such as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and Brian De Palma’s Scarface. Nevertheless, Coulibaly suffocates the film’s potential insight into the collapse of the Malian state in 2008 with an overdetermined air of existential dread by placing Ladji on a literal crash course toward inevitable tragedy.
Solemn enough to make Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario seem light-hearted, the film trades in scowling faces and terse dialogue, though few scenes have a purpose beyond mere exposition. Ladji and a fellow group of Malians work for Jean-François (Olivier Rabourdin), a sun-tanned Frenchman whose involvement in running cocaine across national borders extends to poolside meetings and curt expressions of mounting frustration. When the sound of Jean-François’s children gallivanting in a pool is heard off screen during a meeting with Ladji, Coulibaly means it as an ironic expression of lifestyle differences separating these two men. For Jean-François, there’s no contradiction in exploiting young, African men and hoping to raise children of his own. Yet this point would be more convincing, let alone compelling, were Jean-François more than just a cardboard-cutout heavy. If Sicario backs xenophobic fears by reducing Juárez to a hellish graveyard filled with armed-and-tatted Mexican demons, then Wùlu conceives the opposite straw man, one whose proclivity for corruption is a caricature of Western decadence.
At its best, Wùlu cuts to the heart of Ladji’s paralysis through reaction shots that reveal his inner dismay. Koma conveys this pain with blank-faced horror, most notably when Rafael (Quim Gutiérrez), an accomplice of Jean-François’s, explains how he uses unaccompanied minors to traffic cocaine into Venezuela. By playing Ladji’s disgust at such a notion through suggestive silence, Coulibaly deepens Ladji’s circumstances by making visible how such systemic callousness is completely beyond his comprehension.
Were Coulibaly intent on further engulfing Ladji within such sharp evocations of his own entrapment, Wùlu wouldn’t feel so familiar. Indeed, as the bullets start to fly and the body count mounts, the film’s dubious sociopolitical weight ends up feeling like an excuse to stage a number of shootouts. Later, Coulibaly intercuts the scene of Ladji being forced to slay someone from his crew with a bull being slaughtered—a formalist cliché that’s traceable from Strike to Touki-Bouki and beyond. In fact, Touki-Bouki serves as a reference point throughout this film, even down to the dénouement in which Ladji’s aspirations to escape the city place him on a vehicle reminiscent of the protagonist’s in Djibril Diop Mambéty’s satire of European arrogance and Godardian aesthetics. But aside from the late arrival of a hard-hitting, ambient techno score by Éric Neveux, Wùlu ultimately lacks enough distinctive formal touches to break free from its superior predecessors.