The German/Austrian action-thriller Cold Hell ("Die Hölle") is a stylistic and visceral film, a joy to watch but with an engaging story that suffers from its one-note protagonist. The story follows Özge Dogruol (Violetta Schurawlow), a Turkish-Austrian taxi driver living in Vienna who, after witnessing the murder of her neighbor from her window, finds herself dragged into a deadly game of cat and mouse with a serial killer (Sammy Sheik). Little does the murderer know, he may have bitten off more than he can chew by setting his sights on Özge, and it quickly becomes unclear exactly who is the cat, and who is the mouse.
The film opens following Özge driving her taxi on the night shift and picking up various customers. This setting, combined with the film's colorful pallet, draws distinct visual callbacks to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, which I have no doubt was a purposeful homage. The opening also provides us with a bit of exhibition in which we witness Özge's above average physical prowess when she is forced to defend herself against a pair of unruly ruffians, fighting skills which come into play later in the story. And just in case that scene didn't do a sufficient enough job convincing us of how much of a badass she is, within minutes we learn that she spends her off time cage fighting, all the while never losing that perpetual scowl or showing anything that even remotely resembles a range of human emotions.
Which isn't to say that Violetta Schurawlow doesn't perform well, her wooden presence has more to do with how the character was written. It's left to expositional dialogue to give us insight into her emotional state, such as when a friend asks her how she's doing after having witnessed the murder, without a hint of irony she dryly responds with "I'm a mess" without giving any outward indication of said mess. As a result of her character's flat nature, attempts at key emotional moments of the film fall flat which leads to a slow first act. Throughout the course of the story, we come to learn that there is actually a good reason for Özge's emotional detachment besides the filmmakers just trying to give us a female alternative to Snake Plissken. And it's a reason that allows us to finally empathize with her, however, in spite of that empathy, her monotone presence continues to make it difficult for us to truly connect with her.
Don't get me wrong, there is a lot to enjoy in this movie for someone tuning in solely for the action element. The story itself is engaging, and the action scenes are executed in a kinetic, visceral, and impressive fashion. Director Stefan Ruzowitzky's use of a colorful pallet contrasts nicely with the bleak plot. All of which makes for a visually appealing movie that is stimulating when its action sequences take center stage. In fact, had this film been more action-packed Özge's one-note characterization might not have been a significant issue.
However much of the film is character driven, with what feels like long stretches between action sequences during which Özge's character is tasked with keeping us invested in the story, and unfortunately, her ceaseless grimace and flat line delivery falls just short of accomplishing that task. The result is that a 90-minute action/thriller that should have felt quickly paced instead feels like 2 hours and change.
In summary, with "Cold Hell" Violetta Schurawlow gives a solid performance provided how little she was given to work with, director Stefan Ruzowitzky shows his talent at delivering satisfying and memorable action sequences, and I would be interested to see what he has lined up next. But only on the condition that next time, he gives his lead actor more to work with and gives us a protagonist with a range of two, or maybe even three different emotions.
Cold Hell is currently streaming on Shudder.
6 / 10