Ms. 45 is the story of Thana, played by Zoë Tamerlis, a garment worker who goes on a killing spree after suffering two rapes in a single day. It was directed by Abel Ferrara and is gritty and violent in a way typical of his work. The film was originally awarded an "X" rating, although Ferrara was able to get the board to change their minds and reduce it to an "R." Ms. 45 has long had a degree of critical respect unusual, if not unique, for a film of its genre. It's possible that this film helped open critics' eyes to I Spit on Your Grave.
Sorry to begin this review on such a down note, but the metaphor used in this film is so unusual that it needs to be introduced with some background information. Squirm through the following paragraph:
Statistics suggest that as few as 10% of all sexual assaults are reported to police. Many victims feel that they will receive little support or be made to feel as though they are in some way responsible. There is little incentive for a rape victim to come forward and accuse her attacker: Her name will be dragged through the mud in the resulting trial and she will have to deal with the possibility that her friends and family will treat her as damaged goods. This all works in favor of the attacker, who holds power over his victim long after the crime has been committed.
The silence of rape victims has been a major plot point in a number of films. There is an entire subgenre of rape/revenge films in which a powerless victim takes matters into her own hands and extracts bloody vengeance. Ms. 45 belongs to this genre, although it is atypical in a few important ways. Prime among these is that its protagonist is mute, which makes the "silent victim" metaphor very literal.
The film is set in Manhattan's fashion district at the end of the disco era. This is New York at its sleaziest, and Thana absorbs verbal abuse from many skeevy characters on her walk home from work. A stop at a grocery store reinforces the image that she is treated like a piece of meat. Then she is snatched, dragged into an alley and raped. Her apartment has meanwhile been broken into, and the intruder is still there when she gets home. He doubles her displeasure, but she catches him in an inattentive moment and overpowers and kills him. Whatever empowerment that gives her is fleeting, and her world view has changed into one in which an attacker always waits just out of sight. Her breakdown is all but assured when she has to butcher and dispose of her assailant's corpse.
Thana then behaves like a fugitive, and her trail of body parts makes front-page news. When an innocent but obnoxious bystander sees her deposit one of her bloody little care packages, she kills him out of fear. The pressure increases as she contends with a nosy landlady and a boss who makes inappropriate advances.
Thana's campaign to clean the streets has a very different feel than other vigilante films. Unlike in Death Wish or I Spit on Your Grave, she's not going after people who have hurt her personally. The cathartic release of those films is reduced, if it exists at all. Ms. 45 is about Thana turning the tables and herself becoming a predator. Her gun, and you know what Freud would say about that, places her in the traditionally male role of sexual aggressor. She begins to make herself up and dress so as to attract attention, then kills any man who pays attention to her.
Thana's targets include such stereotypical abusers as pimps, gang-bangers and a wealthy Saudi, but as her spree progresses she goes after relatively innocent victims. Even as she rids the streets of vermin, there's a tragic feel to her transformation. Some of her victims, like the tortured soul who wrestles away her gun and turns it on himself, are equally tragic. Her spree ultimately loses its focus and becomes simply about making all men pay. By the end, she is merely perpetuating the cycle of abuse.
Zoë Tamerlis resembles a more-exotic version of Nastassja Kinski or Amber Tamblyn. She is more soulful than the former and more expressive than the latter. Her performance, although wordless, is very effective. When the boss requests her presence at an after-hours event, she smiles almost imperceptibly as though to say, "I know what you're driving at and I have plans of my own for you." At other times, she uses only her eyes to express varying degrees of fear, shame, weakness and, ultimately, confidence.
Not all of the supporting performances are equally effective. The landlady is a Basket Case-level talent; in other words, bad. Many of the actors seem to improvise their own dialogue, which gives the film a very authentic feel.
The soundtrack is as violent and crazed as the film itself. It largely consists of solo piano and, true to its time and place, no-wave music with lots of dissonant, squealing saxophone. The main piano theme is suspiciously similar to the music from the spider scene of The Beyond.
The film's treatment of violence varies with the scene. The rape scenes are brutal and horrifying. Later scenes feature a more stylized form of violence: Blood is spattered over a photographer's backdrop like an expressionist painting, and a street gang prowls in a circle around Thana as they try in vain to frighten her. The latter scene may represent the closest this film comes to what we would now call "empowerment," as she remains in complete control of a threatening situation.
Connections: Thana dresses as a nun for Halloween. Nun imagery would later be important in Bad Lieutenant, which was written by Tamerlis and directed by Ferrara. The ending sequence is shot in slow motion and evokes Carrie.