Why I Love… #83: Ms. 45

Year: 1981

Director: Abel Ferrara

Stars: Zoë Lund (Thana), Albert Sinkys (Albert), Darlene Stuto (Laurie), Helen McGara (Carol), Nike Zachmanoglou (Pamela), Editta Sherman (Mrs. Nasone)

Genre: Thriller, Exploitation

Quantifying why I love Ms. 45 is going to be trickier than most of these essays as it can be a hard film to love, or rather, can seem like a gaudy choice for justification. But welcome to Abel Ferrara’s vision of New York City. Midway through the movie you see a red stop light through a murky windscreen, it’s sickly glow smudged and obscured, bleeding out over the frame. It’s perhaps the film’s perfect visual summation, indicating a world of worn away edges, of softened, compromised values. A world in which good and bad mingle and coagulate.

Ms. 45 belongs quite squarely in that murkiest and most troubling subset of exploitation films; the rape-revenge flick. There was an insurgence of these films in ‘B-movie cinema’ particularly in the 70’s and 80’s and almost all – Ms. 45 included – are problematic in their mixed intentions. The bloody vengeance that marks the inevitable conclusions of these films always feels sullied by the sometimes gratuitous  assaults that set events in motion. There is nothing enjoyable about watching a rape scene in any film whatsoever. Nor should there be. It’s very possibly the most heinous act that one human being can do to another. In every case I’ve seen, these films sag under the weight of contamination. The very suggestion that depiction can represent glamourisation leaving them outcast in the spectrum of cinema. Worse are the ones that treat the subject frivolously.

Ms. 45 does not do that, nor are it’s most troubling scenes gratuitous. They are mercifully brief but horrible nonetheless. The film tells the story of Thana, a mute seamstress for an up and coming New York designer whose life is changed irrevocably when she is raped twice in one day by two separate attackers; the first snatching her down an alleyway by chance, the second a burglar she interrupts on returning home. She murders the second rapist, bludgeoning him with an iron before dragging him to her bathtub. Only the next day does she start to think coolly about disposing of him.

It is in the ensuing 24 hours that Thana, locked without speech behind Lund’s striking eyes, seems to make a conscious choice to exact murderous vengeance on any man overstepping his bounds with a woman in the city of New York. Armed with the burglar’s .45, she quickly becomes an anonymous vigilante by night, drawing the attention of the press in the process.

Anyone who detests the sight of self-entitled men crudely accosting women in public will probably get a sense of satisfaction when they see Thana putting the .45 to use on at least one occasion, yet quickly Ferrara muddies the waters of her MO. Her lethal strikes are not merely defensive. Before long Thana starts using herself as bait, orchestrating events, or at least acquiescing until they reach an escalation point. Then, as soon as she receives what she interprets as justification, the trigger is squeezed. There’s no doubt that she has received ample pressure to reach this breaking point, but the viewer is asked to question whether that excuses her actions. The quiet calculation makes her a chilling presence and Lund is remarkable in a role that traps her with only her physicality to work with.

In that sense, Ferrara exploits her to his purposes, but if anything, she overpowers him. The film plays on her attractiveness the same way Thana herself does. It is exploited for a purpose. But not the purely lascivious one we’d expect. We are asked to ask ourselves why we’re watching. What are our motives? Ms. 45 is self-reflexive. It examines exploitation culture as it, well, exploits it. True, the film takes a rather hard-boiled and grindhouse approach to depicting the emotional fall-out of rape – something tailored specifically to meet the needs of a thriller – but that rather misses the point that the psychological ramifications are what’s on the table. Few films are brave enough to choose such a discussion point.

Ms. 45 depicts a mental divorce from consequence. It’s tricky to fully gauge as we are given little insight into Thana’s mindset before the traumas she is put through, yet afterward a progression of callousness is evident. Her first hours see her extremely vulnerable, but as this seemingly proves overwhelming, she toughens, closes ranks, picks a course and pursues it with an increasing separation from compassion. Ms. 45 is sternly anti-rape, but it also warns of what could happen if we don’t reconcile great emotional damage. If we don’t seek help.

Thana’s mute nature could readily be seen as one of the film’s biggest problems; for all its wannabe feminist vitriol it denies it’s protagonist a voice. Yet in that, I feel, Ferrara’s film is a reflection on the stifled conversation in society surrounding rape. Thana doesn’t have a voice with which to project her traumas. In part this can be seen as a reflection of the conflicted emotions of the victim; feelings of shame and disgust or unfounded responsibility and guilt even. The reticence to talk about something so awful or, in conservative circles, taboo. But also, just as damning, the closed ears around her. Perhaps Thana has no voice simply because the world doesn’t want to hear it? The result of our closed ears? A perpetuating and escalating cycle of violence.

So there is sociological meat here, but in addition it’s also an Abel Ferrara picture, and as such it’s slickly stylised to within an inch of its existence. Nobody quite depicts New York the way Ferrara does. Few directors conjure such a particular image of an urban jungle at large, while simultaneously giving a sense of multiple mini cultural cyclones. He has a knack of economically conveying, in short, a city. It’s a heady, seedy, hot environment. A living, thrashing creature. And a tawdry, used up place. But Ferrara is evidently fascinated by it, and in that fascination is love. Ms. 45 sits beside Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in being a rapturous and poetic accounting of a city lost in its own waste. And also a blistering vigilante picture.

Ferrara presents what some might dismiss as trash with the care and attention one might afford a more ‘legitimate’ movie. Ms. 45 looks better than most of its peers. One area in which ‘this kind of thing’ tends to excel, however, is in the soundtrack department, and lo, Ms. 45 is a storming success here as well. Parping horns punctuate the tension as Thana spirals away from humanity, while the film’s party finale is carried by a sax hook that refuses to leave the mind afterwards, just as the majority of the film lingers.

The party sequence troubles further in light of recent events that have grabbed the headlines in America. In a very real sense the film culminates with a mass shooting as the pressure within Thana truly erupts when she perceives her boss Albert as a threat. She is ultimately only stopped when another female intervenes in her frenzy (even then her attacker’s stance just beforehand is comically phallic). So closed down are Thana’s response mechanisms that she enters a sort of “does not compute” mode, allowing herself to be overpowered. Are the causes of spree killings specific stressors as suggested in Ms. 45? Are the problems deeper than that, sewn over years or decades? These are difficult questions. And while Ms. 45 doesn’t attempt to answer them completely – it merely presents an example – it at least has a conversation with its audience. As the credits roll to that terrifically jazzy, party beat, you’re left to wonder how much you enjoyed the film, and what the ramifications of that enjoyment might be.

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