Fantastic Fest Review: Cold Hell

Austrian thriller features kickass heroine

In Vienna, a serial killer is on the loose. We are obliquely introduced to him over the course of the deftly cross-cut opening passage of Cold Hell.

Özge Dogruol (Uzbeki actress Violetta Schurawlow) drives a cab through the rainy night streets of Vienna. It’s as if Özge is haunted, much like Travis Bickle, by the knowledge that showers can never fully cleanse the layers of scum that coat the city’s surface. In an upstairs apartment window, we see a bewigged woman stripping off her clothes in full view of anyone who cares to look. Elsewhere in the room, something ominous boils on the stove while a figure emerges from the shadows. The figure slits the woman’s throat at the same time that Özge confronts a man who will not move his car so that her cab can pass. With some quick kickboxing moves and supreme confidence, Özge knocks the man to the ground. In separate locations, the murder of a prostitute and Özge’s intolerance for the insolence of men have been linked. Once Özge returns home from her shift, that connection goes into overdrive. She discovers the prostitute’s corpse in the process of being mutilated in the alleyway outside her apartment window. The dead woman was a neighbor, and the serial killer catches a glimpse of Özge. For the remainder of the movie, Özge and the murderer are on the prowl for each other.

Özge knows it isn't safe to return to her apartment, but as she searches for safe harbor among her friends and family members, it becomes clear that she has nowhere to fit that description. Her best friend, her cousin Ranya, is the faithless wife of Özge's boss and the mother of Ada, a toddler. The bickering between Ranya and her husband causes both women to flee the apartment. Özge’s ex, who runs the kickboxing school, is disagreeable, and when she returns to her parents' house, it's clear there's a traumatic history of sexual abuse inflicted on her by her father. At first, the police don't think she needs protection, so she's left to her own wiles until the killer targets her at work.

Schurawlow is fiercely captivating to watch: Her Özge is a fortress of self-protection, all sullen attitude and self-reliance, although she behaves protectively toward Ada. An early scene at the gym demonstrates that Özge can best any man. Only a later scene in which she takes refuge in the apartment of a sympathetic detective Christian Steiner (Tobias Moretti) and his senile father (Friedrich von Thun), does the film toss in a gratuitous sex scene accompanied by Özge wandering around the apartment in her underwear and T-shirt.

This Austrian thriller is a taut exercise and Benedict Neuenfels’ crisp cinematography is is one of the film’s highlights. But the best part of Cold Hell is the character of Özge. As an ethnic Turk in Vienna, she is already an outsider. But she is a fierce fighter, able to fend for herself, even after the police begrudgingly offer her protection. (They park her in a shelter for abused women, which she promptly leaves.) Most interestingly, she forges her own family, taking care of Ada once her mother is no longer able to, and warming up to the gentle detective Christian, who has demonstrated his kindness through his care for his confused and incontinent father. Cold Hell reminds us that warmth can be found on earth, but bringing your own kindling is advisable.

Cold Hell

Tuesday, September 26, 12mid

Fantastic Fest runs Sept. 21-29. Follow all the announcements, news, reviews, and interviews at

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