FEARNET Movie Review: 'Ms. 45'


It's difficult to locate all that much depth and artistry while picking through the "rape/revenge" films of the 1970s. The psychological hook is obvious: rape is horrific, revenge is cathartic, and the nastier they are, the more the audience will feel some sort of impact. That's how it works in theory, anyway, "Mainstream" Hollywood films like Deliverance and Straw Dogs dealt with on-screen rape in shocking but relatively artistic fashion, whereas exploitation films like Last House on the Left and I Spit On Your Grave were more intent on "rubbing your face" in the ugliness of the subject matter.

Falling somewhere in between those two camps is 1980's Ms. 45, which is both ugly and aggressive (like those indie films) and oddly, sometimes disconcertingly beautiful, powerful and tragic. What starts out as a nasty but familiar story (a mute young NYC woman is raped (twice!) in one day and takes revenge on her attackers) slowly evolves into a smart, dark, and strangely upsetting piece of character-based creepiness. Because this poor young woman is not just intent on killing her attackers; she now sees virtually all men as evil. So she decides to kill a whole lot of men.
So what begins as a simple if brutal story of violation and vindication becomes a lot more interesting. It's a simple deviation from the standard tale, but Ms. 45 is infinitely more interesting than many of its ilk; it's not about the brutality of revenge. It's about the horrible infection that takes place when a person is violated so painfully and personally. The silent, wounded, beautiful, and infuriated anti-heroine Thana (Zoe Tamerlis) doesn't want to punish the men who hurt her. She wants to eliminate the male animal. 
Obviously there's a lot here for feminists to talk about. Does Ms. 45 "wallow" in rape like similar films do? (I'd argue no. Both sequences are rather brief, and the second one contains some crucial moments of character "de-evolution.") More interesting is the film's "holy avenger" approach. Most of the men that Thana guns down are threatening (or at least repulsive) but not all of them deserve to be gunned down in cold blood. As she prowls the wonderfully ancient streets of early-'80s New York City, Thana (aka Ms. 45) becomes an indiscriminate destroyer of all things testosterone-based. 
There's a lot here that elevates Ms. 45 beyond that of simple exploitation: the lead performance by Zoe Tamerlis is simply excellent; the screenplay (by frequent Ferrara collaborator Nicholas St. John) keeps the viewer off-balance by having us empathize with Thana -- even as she transforms from wounded animal to bloodthirsty maniac. And James Momel's frank but beautiful images of a long-gone version of New York City provide a dark but colorful backdrop for Thana's journey from victim to hunter. Plus, Ms. 45 runs about 80 minutes and doesn't seem to have a wasted frame to speak of, and efficiency is always nice in a dark indie film.
Taken as a psychological thriller, a tragic character study, or as a horror film about one woman's brutal break from reality, Ms. 45 remains one of the most compelling and effective films of Abel Ferrara's career. (Genre fans should also seek out his Driller Killer, Bad Lieutenant, and King of New York, among others.) Kudos to Drafthouse Films for resurrecting this most interesting of all the "rape/revenge" thrillers of the early '80s grindhouse era -- and here's hoping they opt to restore a few more of Mr. Ferrara's early indie films.