A brutal game of cat and mouse where the would-be female victim becomes the predator.
Özge Dogruol (Violetta Schurawlow) is a having a rough go of things. A Turkish immigrant in Vienna, she drives a cab for a living and puts up with obnoxious customers while her life crumbles. Things worsen when she’s witness to a murder scene and believes the killer may have spotted her. Her immediate family is of no help, her cousin/best friend is interested only in using her for coverage of her own infidelity, and her ex has moved on to fresher pastures. Not even the police feel she has much to offer their investigation, and when the killer strikes again making it clear he wants Özge dead she realizes she can’t be counting on anyone other than herself.
Good thing she’s been training for years in Thai boxing.
Director Stefan Ruzowitzky‘s (Anatomy, Deadfall) latest is a traditional thriller in most ways involving a mad killer targeting women he deems unclean, but we get a couple welcome minor themes running through it as well. There’s the empowerment of a woman constantly oppressed by men, and there’s a recognition of Muslims as characters who exist beyond stereotypical types. But regardless of those small threads — it’s also a damn fine little thriller.
Schurawlow is the film’s core strength throughout as she dominates the screen just as she does the men who get in her way. A rude bro on the street, a ruder sparring partner dismissive of a female fighter, and even a cop that crosses her path at a bad time — they all feel her wrath through quick, brutal blows, and it all serves to convince that this is a woman capable of taking care of herself. Beyond the physical prowess though, Schurawlow also delivers an intensely compelling performance as someone who’s been forced by life into a somewhat solitary existence. It’s an affecting turn watching her warm up to the film’s other grump, Det. Steiner (Tobias Moretti), whose own reasons for being a prick open a door between them.
“You’re only good at throwing punches and taking hits,” says Özge’s ex, and it’s an accusation she’s agreed with for too long. We get to see her let down that guard some when it comes to Steiner and the child who enters her life, but thankfully she’s not above throwing those punches when necessary.
The film runs a lean ninety minutes, but while it hits multiple familiar beats along the way including police who don’t take her seriously and the endangerment of loved ones, the film feels fresh thanks to its lead. One sequence sees Özge rushing into danger instead of away as she targets the killer on a busy subway train, and it’s an energetic, fist-pumping assault that enamors her with viewers even further.
Özge is Muslim, as are the prostitutes being slaughtered, and while the film never focuses on it there are some interesting commentaries on their culture and presence as immigrants. Her cousin is married to a local man, but there’s no bond between families as the elder immigrants hold fast to past behaviors. That refusal to let go also leads to Özge’s own dysfunction with an abusive father and compliant mother. It’s side noise, but it all works to craft and shape her character’s present and future.
As mentioned, Cold Hell is a quick, fast-moving watch with little time for tangents. They’re there, but viewers looking for a solid and exciting thriller with a stellar lead performance don’t need to worry about distracting lulls. Instead it’s all about stopping a killer, and Özge is more than up to the task.
[Editor’s note: Our review of Cold Hell originally ran during Fantasia 2017.]