A sadistic religious zealot prowls the streets of Vienna, skinning Muslim prostitutes alive before forcing them to drink boiled cooking oil — a preview of what he believes awaits them in hell. A bitter young woman drives a taxi through the night, scumbags and belligerent assholes piling in and out of her cab, each one lighting the fire of her rage. This unlikely pair is on a collision course that’s about to put them both through the ringer, they just don’t know it yet. The latest film from Oscar-winning Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters), Cold Hell (Die holle) is a brutal genre hybrid that embraces the lurid violence of Giallo murder mysteries and the breakneck set-pieces of retro action thrillers and packs a walloping punch.
Violetta Schurawlow stars as Özge Dogruol, the bitter cabbie in question, whose history of abuse has hardened and sharpened her into a force of fury, but above all, into a survivor. She’s like a shark, always moving forward, and no matter what life throws at her, she throws it right back. When she’s not behind the wheel of her cab, Özge trains at her ex-boyfriend’s Thai boxing gym; that is until she gets herself kicked out for beating an opponent bloody when he takes a cheap shot at her. Which means she’s no stranger to throwing ‘bows when she finds herself mixed up in a deadly cat-and-mouse with a maniacal serial killer, and that makes her exactly the kind of bad bitch you don’t want witnessing your murder.
After a rough shift behind the wheel, Özge heads home for the night where she’s greeted with the stench of charred flesh and boiling blood — she peers out her window and catches a glimpse of the man who just tortured and murdered her neighbor, but he catches a glimpse of her too, and from there the chase is on. Schurawlow digs her teeth in deep to the gristle of her character and gnaws on it, giving the kind of performance that convinces you she could easily be the next action import. Radiant and wiry, Schurawlow convinces you of every swing despite her slight frame, painting a portrait of the ultimate scrapper, the through-and-through survivor who’ll go out swinging if she goes out at all.
And goodness knows she has to do a lot for herself. At first, the cops are a dead end. Detective Steiner (Tobias Moretti) initially writes her off, leaving her vulnerable. Her family isn’t much help either; her father’s a predator, her mother’s complicit, and her dearest relative, cousin Ranya (Verena Altenberger), would rather brag about her infidelities than take Özge’s concerns seriously. When the killer comes looking for Özge, he accidentally targets Ranya, leading our spitfire heroine to snatch up Ranya’s young daughter Ada and embark on a bloody quest for vengeance.
There’s a brief domestic detour when Özge shacks up with Detective Steiner, whose a better man than he first appears, caring for his Alzheimer’s-addled father (Friedrich von Thun) and trying to care for Özge, even if her bullish stubbornness blocks almost every attempt he makes. These sequences don’t quite measure up to the impact of Cold Hell‘s action-oriented moments, but they add welcome depth to what otherwise might feel like stock characters and they add a vulnerability that heightens the climactic third act showdown. The film’s final act is a doozy, picking up with the action right where it left off and pitting Özge against the killer in the full light of day, without a shadow for either to hide in. It’s relentless, gleefully knocking the wind out of your lungs, and stylishly shot to boot.
Running a lean 91 minutes, Cold Hell is all muscle; hurtling through one brutal, kinetic set-piece after the next. Whether Özge’s wrecking a disrespectful challenger in the ring or her taxi’s barreling the wrong way down the Ringstrasse (an absolute banger of a breathless action set-piece), Cold Hell lands every blow.
Cold Hell is now available on Shudder.