Genre is a collection of tropes, and one of the most exciting things a filmmaker can do is playfully rearrange or alter these tropes. However, they can also be used as shorthand to allow space for new kinds of characters or ideas. In the hyper-violent action thriller Cold Hell, Stefan Ruzowitzky embraces formula often, but as a means to explore the difficult life of a surly Turkish woman living in Vienna.
Her name is Özge (Violetta Schurawlow), and she practices Thai kick-boxing in between driving a cab for her cousin’s husband. An unimpeachable badass, Özge’s penchant for — and the film’s revelry in — brutal violence is illustrated almost immediately as she chastens a misogynist prick who has blocked her car in. One evening, after a miserable day at work, she returns home to a strange smell. Investigating leads her to an alley window, through which she witnesses a man flaying and boiling a woman alive. Bad as this already seems, he spots her spotting him, and the game is on.
Here is where Cold Hell illustrates its thorough approach to character. Özge calls the cops, but they generally disregard her as an immigrant and simply wish her well. She seeks out help elsewhere, but finds that her internal struggles, choice of compatriots, and chronic stubbornness have left her essentially alone. Many films like these showcase lone wolves, but few take the time to examine how that has happened, and how it might affect the protagonist. Ruzowitzky doesn’t dwell very long on Özge’s immigrant status or social alienation, but these realities color her experience and naturally push her into cahoots with a sympathetic detective, Christian Steiner (Tobias Moretti).
Schurawlow plays a scowling badass masterfully, allowing her depths of pain and fear to show only as a glint in her eye. Moretti delivers a charming, post-hyper-masculine take on the rogue detective. Writer Martin Amrosch peppers Cold Hell with offbeat characters, such as Detective Steiner’s dotty father, who he lovingly cares for, and clever complications, as with Özge evading the police while charged with a stroller-bound child. The villain (Sammy Sheik) works with his limited screen time, but is as straightforward as possible — an “ordinary-looking” professional man who happens to be religious fanatic that murders immigrant prostitutes per Quran quotes.
Mournful noir horns crop up throughout, and the film’s delight in grit is borderline gratuitous. This is a world where monstrous men are not an aberration, but another day on the job, a place where sex and violence are inextricably linked, and everyone is essentially alone. But for all its darkness, propulsive energy and contagious fun run throughout, even in the most intimate scenes. Emotions are heightened across the board, but personal conflict is often foreshortened to move things quickly forward. The camera, jittery and askew, always seems poised to leap into action. The action scenes themselves are often disorienting, but occasionally inventive. At its heart, Cold Hell is a revenge B-movie, and it functions excellently at stoking the audience blood lust. Ruzowitzky doesn’t remake the wheel, but he’s entered the canon.
Fantastic Fest runs September 21st – 28th. Visit the festival’s official website.