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Cold Hell
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by Jay Seaver

"Sometimes a hellish journey, but never not exciting."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Cold Hell" is a wonderfully grimy thriller which gets right down to the business of a woman with a crappy support system to draw on for help trying to defend herself from a determined serial killer. It doesn't over-burden the audience with too many subplots or go overboard in fetishizing the crimes, but just does what it promises in ways that are occasionally astonishing but always determined.

Its heroine is Vienna taxi driver Özge Dogruol (Violetta Schurawlow), ethnically Turkish but an Austrian citizen, on probation for drug possession and with good reason to have a chip on her shoulder for everyone but cousin Ranya (Verena Altenberger) and her daughter Ada (Elif NIsa Uyar), and her latest bit of overzealous sparring with a guy who didn't want to practice with a woman has gotten her kicked out of her muay thai gym. Her problems get bigger, though, when she comes home and sees a particularly grisly crime scene through her bathroom window, and with the way the light works, the killer (Sammy Sheik) maybe gets a better look at her than she does at him. Though detectives Steiner (Tobias Moretti) and Petrovic (Stefan Pohl) inform her the M.O. indicates a serial killer, they don't offer much protection, a potential disaster when Ranya's boyfriend Samir (Robert Palfrader) - also Özge's boss- kicks her out, and Özge's apartment is the first place she and Ada think to go.

While the story is one built around thrills and revenge, there are long stretches when it is simply about Özge, a survivor who feels more damaged than she actually is and as a result is extremely reluctant to trust anybody. The abuse she has survived in the past comes out later, and it's interesting to consider what Martin Ambrosch's script implies as a result, starting from how quickly she asks for police protection despite the fact that we've just seen how physically fierce she can be, and how she won't open up about why even when it would certainly smooth things along. It's almost entirely communicated by lead actress Violetta Schurawlow and how she will often stay silent and deflated in the scenes where the audience wants her to show the spine she does in other moments. She sells the sort of closed-off self-reliance that Özge must embody without making her entirely hard, and gets across a very capable urgency in a crisis workout seeming like she really knows what she's doing. On top of that, she manages the physicality necessary for the action like a pro.

And some of that action Is pretty terrific; though she's established as being a pretty strong muay Thai boxer at the start, Özge never becomes a pretty, graceful fighter, just a fierce one. The big centerpiece is a fairly brutal fight inside Özge's speeding cab that spills out onto the street, both because it comes earlier than we expect - most movies will take a moment to lull the audience into a false sense of security at this point - and because it makes its high speed seem legitimately dangerous as opposed to the wide-open, precision stunts you get in big-budget car movies. Director Stefan Ruzowitzky also manages sharp clarity in his film's use of violence - even when it's Özge going on the offensive, it feels like a bad, destructive option, and Ruzowitzky generally follow it up by making the results horrifying to see. The satisfaction and catharsis the audience has after these scenes isn't necessarily short-lived, but it comes at a price.

It's harsh enough that, despite the unapologetically squalid, grindhouse feel of the film's opening half, Ruzowitzky and Ambrosch seem to feel the need to lighten up in the last act, showing a more human side to Tobia Moretti's initially-hostile detective that, while it often includes unpleasantness and difficulty, allows for a few more moments of levity as Özge copes with not quite knowing how to handle a situation where she is getting some help. It doesn't completely let up - there's still a nasty turn or two waiting as the end approaches - but it's a few moments to breathe and maybe get the idea that things can turn out all right that the audience didn't get earlier.

Though it falls down a bit at points, "Cold Hell" is more likely to shock the audience by knocking is legs out from under than making them wait, which makes something as well-done and pulpy as this doubly enjoyable. It's a messy revenge flick that doesn't mess around, even if that makes it not quite one for the squeamish.

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originally posted: 07/22/17 06:08:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2017 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

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