(Trigger warning: this review involves discussion of sexual assault, trauma, and gender violence.)
Two years after the release of his gritty and noisy murder-fest, The Driller Killer (1979), Abel Ferrara returned to the director’s helm with Ms. 45 (1981), a revenge “fantasy” film. Though Ms. 45 still demonstrates some of that rawness present in Ferrara’s first feature film production, it is by far a smoother film, making excellent use of its mostly unknown and untested cast, especially Zoë Lund, the protagonist from which the title, Ms. 45, gets its name. Of Ferrara’s early films, Ms. 45 is certainly the most compelling, if not because it is a tighter, thematically expedient production, then because of its somewhat brutal (and uncompromising) exposure of the sexist underbelly of NYC — a common theme, it seems, in Ferrara’s work.
Ms. 45 follows a mute high-end seamstress named Thana (Zoë Lund) who, on her way home, is attacked by a masked assailant (Abel Ferrara) and raped in an alley. Traumatized, Thana stumbles home only to discover a burglar in her living room, leaving her once more at the hands of another rapist. But Thana eventually does fight back, bashing the second man over the head and hiding his body in her tub. Shocked both by what she has done and by what has happened to her, Thana decides to defend herself against the men who continue to take advantage. With each interaction, she descends deeper into protectionist rage, becoming a one-woman vigilante killer known only as Ms. 45.
Ferrara’s production isn’t strictly about murderous rampage. So much of this film concerns Thana’s attempts to deal with what has happened to her. Lund wears the trauma well, shifting from nervous mute to terrorized rape victim, and overall, the film treats the subject not with the crude hand of a film like Nail Gun Massacre (1985), but with a great deal of sympathy. Ferrara’s efforts to convey the horrors of PTSD via flashbacks, slow motion, and visual distortions produces a dizzying effect, so much so that I sometimes felt disoriented by Thana’s desperation to maintain hold on “normal” life. It’s for this reason that I think of Ferrara’s Ms. 45 less as yet another rape revenge fantasy; this is actually a superb exploration of the trauma, rage, and fear women experience in a blatantly and relentless sexist culture.
Much of this is missed in descriptions of the film. The focus immediately becomes Thana’s descent into madness or rampage, not the efforts to convey a character trying to deal with what has happened to her and trying to rationalize (in silence) what she will eventually do. The IMDB page says that Thana goes insane and begins killing at random. While it’s true that Thana may be insane, her insanity is not strictly psychosis, as the description would indicate. In fact, I think calling Thana “insane” is dismissive. It’s not that she’s insane or psychotic; it’s that she’s been traumatized repeatedly, and that every time she meets another man in this version of NYC, she is traumatized again. This is not a character going mad; this is a character coming to the conclusion from experience that all men are bad eggs who will lie, manipulate, steal, cheat, and even rape to get what they want from women — their bodies. Thana isn’t insane; she’s fed up.
I can’t say I blame Thana for being fed up, either. Over and over again, she is introduced to men who abuse or manipulate women. The photographer she meets in a restaurant, for example, is seen engaged in intimate relationships with one woman just moments before he attempts to weasel his way into Thana’s group of seamstress friends. That he continues to do so to Thana after her friends leave, taking her silence as license to proceed, just reinforces the sleaziness of his character. Thana eventually kills him after he coaxes her to his studio, clearly out to use his position to fulfill his own desires. This happens repeatedly in the film: men present themselves as “friendly” and are quickly exposed as abusers. Thana’s murders, as such, aren’t random; they’re deliberate — almost premeditated in almost every instance.
The repetition of implied gendered violence, a kind of amplified mimicry of the literal violence of the opening traumas, is deftly handled by Ferrara. Indeed, for a film that follows so closely on the heels of I Spit on Your Grave (1978), perhaps one of the most controversial rape revenge film of note, Ms. 45 feels less like a formulaic exploitation than a complicated, somewhat roughly composed exploration of sexism and gendered violence — this despite the fact that Ferrara’s film does follow the traditional 3-act formula endemic to the rape revenge film. Ms. 45, however, doesn’t seem to celebrate the violence produced by Thana; unlike The Driller Killer, which accents its violence with graphic imagery, Ms. 45 limits the graphic-ness of its violence to focus more attention on Thana’s psychological struggles.
All of these elements eventually lead to the film’s most brilliant moment: its conclusion. The rest of the film made clear to Thana, our troubled vigilante, that the men around her can’t be trusted; gendered violence repeats with common criminals, businessmen profiting off of female bodies, catcalls, and, finally, with the obvious advances of Thana’s boss, Albert (Albert Sinkys). Thana has murdered every other violator, but realizing that even the Halloween party to which she has been repeatedly coaxed to attend is little more than another space where men can take advantage, she resolves to make a final stand. It’s clear in the concluding scene that her action is not simply to defend herself; indeed, she intentionally singles out man after man for extermination, even picking out the men dressed as female characters and avoiding those women dressed as men. The concluding scene is the culmination of her defense of women against the endemic sexism of her world — a sexism she has seen over and over again in her personal dealings and even in her interactions with her friends, who are also catcalled and treated as sex objects.
And it’s that naivety in that final scene which makes Thana’s death so significant. Dressed as a “sexy” nun — bright red lipstick and all — Thana is both the embodiment of opposites — murder and sex being forbidden to such figures — and the embodiment of the façade-like nature of the world around her. She also puts on the mask to exact her own sort of justice, one in which men are systematically removed, as if by divine intervention, for the protection of all women, including her friends. The entire moment is captured in slow motion, showing the fear played out over the faces of Thana’s victims in grotesque detail — Thana’s face is almost tense, as if to suggest determination or resolution. And then Thana is stabbed in the back by a coworker/friend: Laurie (Darlene Stuto). For the first time, we hear Thana’s voice, an ethereal scream that surely does not come from Thana’s actual vocal cords, but from beyond the screen. And when she turns to shoot her assailant, we see that shock on Thana’s face: the shock of betrayal.
That final sequence is possibly one of the most brilliant scenes in the entire film. The horror of realization is there: Thana is betrayed not just by a friend, but by her own gender. The vigilante is destroyed by the very thing she hopes to protect. It’s that moment which gives us, I think, the sense that even in a world so devoid of gender equality and so rife with verbal and physical violence against women, even your own gender might turn against you. It’s a rather disturbing proposition, but it is one that the film tries to suggest is necessary, because Thana’s rampage in the final moments is fundamentally irrational, even if the rest of the film tries to convince us otherwise. Albert may be a manipulator, but it is hard to imagine that every male at the Halloween party is of the same stripe; it is only from Thana’s limited experience that she is able to justify her final act. But we should see the cracks for what they are: the opposite gendered coin.
Overall, I enjoyed Ms. 45 a great deal. It certainly will not be a film for everyone given the content. Additionally, some of the performances are less than stellar, which are all the more apparent because Thana does not speak. The worst offender is Mrs. Nasone (played by “Duchess of Carnegie Hall” photographer Editta Sherman), whose performance is about as enjoyable as shoving your hand into a meat grinder — a flaw present in The Driller Killer, too. However, Ms. 45 is a film that is ripe for analysis. The best films are the ones that make me think about what I’m seeing; this is exactly that kind of movie.
: It is also important to note that Laurie is perhaps the most vocal of Thana’s coworkers. In the scene with the photographer, Laurie loudly and directly tells the man to “fuck off” and “get bent,” repeating it for good measure so he’ll take the hint. She does something to several catcallers at another point in the film. In this way, she’s the opposite of Thana, who cannot speak and is often at the mercy of others; Laurie speaks loudly and clearly against the culture around here, while Thana must result in violence.