It starts, as so many horrible things do, without even a glimmer of the terror to come. Young wife and mother Reem (Masa Abd Elhadi) has stopped by her friend Huda’s (Manal Awad) salon to get her hair styled, maybe even cut. The two chat easily about all manner of things, from the trouble of Facebook to the latest drama with a frenemy from the neighborhood. Reem’s charming baby Lina fusses nearby, she mentions problems with her untrusting husband, and Huda fixes her a cup of coffee to enjoy while getting a trim. Everything feels just fine, comforting even, but that’s before Huda slips something into Reem’s coffee cup, who only notices a bitter taste long after she’s started sinking into unconsciousness.
No, not everything is as it seems at Huda’s salon, and while that makes for a fascinating start to Hany Abu-Assad’s latest Bethlehem-set drama, it ultimately results in a less than satisfying turn to the film, also named for the seemingly safe neighborhood spot. After Reem has succumbed to whatever Huda has laced her drink with, the salon owner sets about a routine she’s done many times before, with chilling results. “Huda’s Salon” doesn’t waste a second in its crackling first 10 minutes, zooming from easy chatter to absolutely horrifying drama without missing a trick, but that rat-a-tat-tat opening eventually gives way to a drama that’s uneasy both due to its subject matter and its weak hold on it.
Abu-Assad opens the film with a series of intertitles that lay out the political and social state of Israel and Palestine in broad strokes — two-time Oscar nominee Abu-Assad is Palestinian, and presumably is eager to unpack the decades-long conflict in the simplest of terms for a wide audience — that introduce us to the two main forces at play: the Israeli secret service and the Palestinian resistance. At some point in her complicated life, Huda ran afoul of the secret service (maybe?), who she claims blackmailed her into working for them (again, maybe?). Part of the gig: blackmailing other young women, women so very like Huda, to get them to also work for the state.
Reem is only her latest victim. As the full horror of what Huda — who will later claim that she chose her victims because she wanted, in her own way, to help them, another Huda confession that could just as easily be a self-serving lie — has done to Reem makes itself clear in the film’s opening moments, “Huda’s Salon” encounters its first big roadblock: there doesn’t seem to be any way out of this. And while that sets an interesting tone for the film — all the futility of war, in one messy little package — Abu-Assad seems eager to twist “Huda’s Salon” into a more tense outing. But what tension can there ever be when you already know how this will all end? That’s a different question, and while intriguing on its own, does not seem to be one the film is readily interested in engaging with.
Abu-Assad, who also wrote the film, tries his damndest to craft tension and dread wherever he can: seesawing back and forth between a terrified Reem and the soon-captured Huda, both racing against a clock that only ticks toward the inevitable. Reem, rightly convinced that her life is basically over through no fault of her own, scrambles to save herself, her mercurial husband, and their baby. As she speed-walks through her neighborhood, clamors around her increasingly claustrophobic house, clutches her child, argues with her husband, and picks up and puts down her phone (perhaps, as Huda suggested after she blackmailed Reem, she might want to call her contact Musa with some insider info?), the pieces are in place for a nail-biting outing — the constant presence of the innocent baby alone should scare audiences — but it never sticks.
Across town, in a dingy underground space, Huda is cycling through her own horrific situation. The resistance, long interested in whatever is happening in her salon, has finally captured her, and steely-eyed enforcer Hasan (the very talented Ali Suliman, here expected to deliver deep character work alongside low-rent tics like a constant need to put eye drops in) wants to know what the deal is with all these compromising pictures of young women Huda tried to hide. Miscommunication, misdirection, and plain old human fallibility reign supreme during their interactions, which eventually become, well, kind of friendly?
Abu-Assad is, at least, not eager to turn anyone into a black-and-white villain here — save perhaps Huda, who Awad plays with a chilling reserve that mostly works, particularly when she’s delivering lines we really don’t know if we should believe or not — and seems compelled by the reality that both sides have their own points to make. But that’s a strange thing to attempt in a film like “Huda’s Salon,” which is also absolutely about the cost of war on people, like Reem and baby Lina, who have done nothing beyond simply existing in this fraught time, this terrible place. There’s no getting out, but as “Huda’s Salon” chugs along to an over-thought ending that does little to reflect the precise stories and people it’s trying to chronicle, you can’t help but wonder: what is all this for?
“Huda’s Salon” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. IFC Films will release it at a later date.