It can be hard to see the beauty and good in this world full of filth and depravity, but with blinders on that becomes an even tougher task. The reasons why some seek to remove themselves almost entirely can be understandable, but push the universe away enough, and eventually it will push back. For the young woman at the center of Cold Hell (Die Hölle), a taut thriller from director Stefan Ruzowitzky, horrific events leads her to discover that self-imposed isolation can lead to its own kind torment — one that can be eased not only by engaging her seemingly desolate life with ferocity, but also feelings. And a healthy sense of violent retribution, of course.
The loneliness of the taxi cab driver is nothing new to cinema, but as Özge ferries drunken louts and horny businessmen through the steaming, sordid avenues of Vienna, it’s not too hard to see why she keeps an emotional distance from the seedy hoi polloi. As a Turkish-born immigrant to Austria, things haven’t exactly been going swimmingly, and so Özge deals with sideways glances, macho patronizing, and suppressed inner demons by doing her best to either ignore those around her or bulldoze through them via some decent Thai boxing chops. Her physical confidence is sapped of productivity, however, relegated to a mere self-defense mechanism; Özge is fading into the darkness, content to hide behind her own suffering and stubbornness. However, that perpetually dour face is thrust back into the light when one night she witnesses from the bathrooom window of her shoddy apartment the results of a gruesome murder — and is in turn spotted by the shadowy killer.
From here it seems as if Cold Hell will become a meticulous, spooky stalker movie, insane predator hunting his prey while clueless detectives play catch up. A deliberate pace works well for giving the creeps, as Özge finds herself being backed into a corner by a man who has an advantage in information and resources. The first act expertly builds her crumbling situation, from a failed relationship with her trainer to a strained one with her family and friends, the latter of whom also work to cover up the ugly aspects of their existence. Even the detective (nicely played by Tobias Moretti) in charge of the case has issues to work through, including a distrust of women, and a father whose aging hasn’t exactly been graceful. Ruzowitsky emphasizes personal squalor by providing Vienna backdrops that will not have tourists booking trips any time soon. A layer of grime covers the working-class neighborhoods outside and in, sleazy neons barely illuminating the dingy streets, and dimly-lit flats screaming to be scrubbed — sometimes of skin and blood.
This is no paradise, even in more financially well-off parts of town, and so the stage is set for icky scares. A few do come, but after a somewhat goofy (albeit exciting) action scene around the halfway point, Cold Hell begins to take on a different vibe, one that flirts less with horror and more with suspense. Sure, Özge is worried — but mostly for those (very) few people she really does care about. As shown early on, this woman can take care of herself with a few well-placed elbows to the face and knees to the groin. Already with a bit of a chip on her shoulder, one gets the sense that she actually wants the chance to go head to head with this creep. No, instead of the usual tension derived from unease over our protagonist’s physical survival, here it’s Özge’s opportunity at happiness that’s at stake. Will she be able break back through into the human society she has exiled herself from?
Violetta Schurawlow delivers the central performance with just the right amount of repressed seething to allow audiences to see the potential underneath. Özge projects confidence, but Schurawlow never forgets to remind us that it’s born from scars. Behind the mask is a fierce but tired woman who would like to trust again, to be relieved of burdens if only for a short rest. It’s the kind of subdued performance that emotionally and physically grounds Cold Hell from start to finish, despite a plot that seems to occasionally veer away from total believability. Enigmatic, sympathetic, frustrating — Özge feels all too real, and one can’t help but root for her to find some measure of peace.
Only through dramatic struggle can such a thing be achieved; rebirth is a messy proposition. Cold Hell doesn’t spare the gory details, presenting its violence unflinchingly, daring the audience to deal with it directly, just as Özge must. The motivations behind the psychopath perfectly represent the swath of obstacles its heroine must overcome to live in such a place — uncomfortable in their nature, but not unfamiliar — but he also exists as a device by which she is forced to reengage with the world. He means to put her through hell, but what he mistakenly neglects to realize is that she has been there already, and it might be time to break out. As Ruzowitsky’s camera peeks around corners and tightens its grip, anxiety increases to the point where something must explode.
Alternately eerie and exhilarating, Cold Hell doesn’t disappoint in the end, offering up one of the more satisfying conclusions the genre is capable of, a catharsis worthy of the masterful ticking bomb that precedes it.
*Cold Hell releases on March 15 as a Shudder Exclusive. For details, head to Shudder.com