While mute seamstress Thana (Zoe Lund) makes her way home, a burglar is breaking into her apartment. As if to reassure the audience, his fumbling through the belongings is intercut with shots of dead meat, neatly stacked in a supermarket that Thana peruses.
On her way home, groceries in tow, Thana is pulled into an alley by a masked man (director Abel Ferrara, one upping Dario Argento). He slings Thana over a trash can and quickly rapes her, whispering creepy nothings in her ear. He promises they’ll see each other again as he runs off.
Thana collects her groceries but arrives at her apartment still disheveled, her blouse torn and her hair bedraggled. The burglar makes his appearance, brandishing the titular .45. In contrast to the masked man, his demeanor is almost comforting. He speaks to Thana with a tone that approaches a brotherly tenderness, expressing concern as he inspects her torn clothes. All the worse then when he too rapes Thana.
During this sequence Zoe Lund runs through dozens of emotions simultaneously. Shock, fear, anger, hopelessness are there in ample supply. But also in the corner, there’s what Oprah once described as “your body betrays you”....
While pinned to the floor, Thana reaches out and finds a red apple made of solid glass. Waiting until the burglar loses himself in the act, she stuns him with a blow to the temple. Thana raises to her feet, and drops the apple in favor of an iron. With it she delivers the death blow.
The encounter leaves Thana with two important items. The burglar’s body, and his gun. She quickly finds use for the gun as a means for dealing with potential male threats. Enlivened by her murders, Thana doesn’t wait for threats to come to her, and instead actively starts to lure potential victims.
A note about the screening.
I’ve read about the initial theater run in the early eighties. All male audiences expecting pure exploitation sizzle. Drawn in by a sexy poster promising all the standard touchstones: nudity, gore, cornball antics. At my revival screening, the audience was probably 60 - 75% female. Some even came in nun costumes. How Ms 45 became renowned as a feminist touch point, separated from the large pool of rape/revenge films from the same period must be an interesting story. I wasn’t there to see the film find its audience, but I can guess from the final product.
Ferrara is too ambitious a director not to naturally rise above his contemporaries in exploitation cinema. As noted above, he is relentless in toying with iconography, recontextualizing it. Thana’s tools of liberation against her second rapist, perhaps her only truly justified murder, are symbols of female subjugation both biblical (the apple) and modern (the iron). There’s a certain thrill in watching Thana use them for her salvation. It’s the one unabashedly cheerable sequence in the film.
Thana dismembers the corpse of her second rapist and distributes the pieces all throughout New York City. At first she places the pieces in trash cans, but soon leaves them in the open, inviting people to discover them. It’s a bit similar to the ancient Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead. In the legend, Isis reassembled the pieces of her husband, but was never able to find his penis. In Ms 45, it’s the symbolic phallus, the pistol, that Thana keeps for herself. The violence she commits with this representation of male power is hardly justifiable. Even my enthusiastic crowd eventually stopped applauding Thana’s vengeance as the body count started to pile up. Her relationship with the pistol eventually becomes sexual, kissing each bullet as she loads a clip.
Ferrara manages to invest most of Thana’s victims with a measure of characterization and pathos. Behind their bluster and social signifiers, they all share a loneliness. Ferrara establishes this from the outset. The first victim of Thana’s gun is given an extended introduction. He hits on every girl that passes by. They all fail to acknowledge him, but he keeps up rather than admit defeat. He spies Thana, clandestinely dropping a bag containing some piece of that second rapist, and sees his opportunity. He collects the bag and runs after Thana like a good samaritan. For his chivalry a bullet between the eyes.
Even the outright criminals, the gang that encircles Thana on a late night walk…. Among them is a young man clumsily wielding a set of nunchucks. In any other exploitation film he’d be a caricature, but in Ms. 45 it registers as something deeper. Not just because all the martial arts skills in the world won’t outmatch a bullet, which the audience knows is his fate. Why would any weapons be needed when the odds are already five to one? Was he hoping to impress Thana with a brief display of his prowess? Here is a man who has taken The Warriors and Enter the Dragon as documentaries on masculinity.
Ferrara never rests in layering the imagery. He devises a Halloween party as the final setting for Thana’s murder spree. It allows him to mix symbols of celibacy and sexuality, femininity and masculinity, violence and peace, and apply them at random outside of their normal context. Thana’s last victim is man in drag wearing a wedding dress, while she winds up penetrated for a third time in the film from a curved blade wielded by a woman.
In stark contrast to Thana, Ms 45 is anchored by two strong, fully realized women, who navigate the man’s world with ease and panache. The film opens with Thana’s male boss prostrate to a fashion buyer. She speaks only as much as needed and only after drawing a great deal of sweat from the boss’s brow.
The second is Laurie (Darlene Stuto in her only film credit, and it’s a damn shame she disappeared). Unlike Thana, who we learn remains mute via choice, Laurie fully mastered her voice. She’s able to fend for herself, deploying brash nu-yawkisms whenever threatened by male piggishness.
Zoe Lund has model-looks. While she’s shown in various states of undress, she’s never fully nude and Ferrara never objectifies her or any of his female cast. There’s no “money shot” here, even as Thana dresses in sexier and sexier outfits (due to increased confidence or the better to attract victims?).
Despite being noted for its jazzy soundtrack the film is remarkably, confidently, quiet. The score itself doesn’t even intrude on the early scenes. In the theater, I could clearly hear the conversations from passerbys in the halls.
My screening was also preceded by a specially chosen soundtrack, songs from the Heartbreakers, Television, and Richard Hell. This placed Ms. 45 in the context of an especially fertile period for New York art. Indeed Ms 45’s on location sets capture an unvarnished look at the Manhattan of the period that helped inspire the music. No argument from me, and I’d recommend listening to a few of these tracks before any Ms 45 screening.