Watching Ms. 45 from the point of view of August 2014, a full 33 years after its initial release and 35 years after it was made, it became apparent that the social politics of the film were long ahead of its time. Simultaneously, Ms. 45 also re-emphasizes that modern political complaints are nothing new, and some men noticed them ages ago.
Ms. 45 follows the mute young woman, Thana, as she goes from being a victim of sexism to being vengeance incarnate. Abel Ferrara opens the film with a series of humiliations thrust upon Thana, and other women, by men. These range from a boss with an overblown entitled temper (and, later, roaming hands) to men on the street harassing women to rape. Thana, being mute, doesn’t have a voice, emphasizing the political neutering of women, the lack of voice in a male society, and the “shut up and take it” mentality society has towards women.
Thana is raped twice in quick succession. The first is by a guy who was laying in wait, brings her to an alley, and is done in a matter of seconds. Ferrara doesn’t give the scene any amount of breathing room in order for it to even be considered erotic or eroticized. The rape is done almost before it starts. This is widely different than the rapes in Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave or Irreversible, where they have long extended brutal depictions of the rape to emphasize the emotional damage and cruelty that the act has in it. Ferrara, instead, emphasizes the first rape as an act of brutal humiliation on both the raper and rapist.
The second rape is by a robber who had gotten in the apartment and was waiting for Thana when she made it home. This rape is much longer, but the focus on the scene is on Thana’s shock and despair, and also how she manages to escape by beating the guy with a glass apple and then shooting him with his .45.
For the remainder of the first hour, we watch Thana develop her voice through her gun. She shoots a street harasser who notices she had dropped a bag of body parts from her first victim, and chases her with it for blocks. She shoots an Arab Sheikh who picks her up on the street and treats her as a prostitute. She shoots a guy who harasses her and her co-workers at a restaurant, then follows her despite her signals of displeasure. The majority of the first two acts is all about simple, justifiable, feminist vengeance, all on topics that have become hot button in the days of Jezebel and Tumblr blogs.
The climax of the second act, begins a moral query that starts to feel like a masculinist backlash. She meets a guy at a bar, and they move to a bench where he begins telling her his woes about his wife. His wife has been cheating on him with another woman, now bringing in closeted homosexuality into the litany of political topics that Ferrara and screenwriter Nicholas St John is bringing to the table. Because of the man’s justified, but completely over the top, outrage at this catch, Thana shoots him in the name of women.
The climax of the film has Thana starting to shoot all the men at a Halloween party. Which brings us to an early example of the modern debate. The first act of the film is, essentially, #YesAllWomen. The second act of the film is, essentially, #StopSexism. And, the third act becomes #NotAllMen. Simultaneously, the third act is a warning that, while Thana was justified for becoming a man-hating angel of vengeance, the hatred took over her soul and, soon, she just became a man-hater. Ferrara is commenting that women have it bad and it all needs to be fixed, but if you go too far, you will stop the conversation and nobody will listen to what you’re trying to say.
Which brings us to Abel Ferrara. The Drafthouse Blu-Ray/DVD set features an interview with him where he almost undermines his own movie. He’s a hard-edged New Yorker who comments that all the feminism on screen was brought by Zoe Tamerlis, the actress who portrays Thana. Then, he proceeds to objectify her as a 17-year old commenting on her lips and her breasts, which leads to opening the ending to possibly being #YesAllMen. Because, really, he comes off a little skeezy. Not nearly as skeezy as Matthew Bright does in the Freeway commentary. But, still…
This is re-emphasized by the frequent sexualization that Ferrara does to Tamerlis and Thana. At one point, Ferrara has her in slicked back hair, pale makeup, a tight black outfit, and red lips out to there. The look and sequence very obviously inspired Paul Verhoeven when Nomi Malone goes on a vengeance bent in Showgirls. During the second rape, Ferrara doesn’t shy away from exploiting Thana’s breasts, and it becomes slightly obvious that a man is behind the camera and the screenplay.
But, does it work? The movie is problematic. But, saying that a movie is problematic is not grounds for dismissal. Ferrara does seem to have a firm grasp of sympathy and empathy, and his gritty, low-budget, grindhouse style makes the movie hard to forget. That Ferrara and St John are merely filming life as problematic for women is an amazing feat for 1981, even if it is a little fraught with third act backlash.
Still, the themes in Ms. 45 can’t be denied. That they’re even more prescient now in 2014, 35 years after the making of the film, really makes the film stand out on its own.
Drafthouse’s new set rounds out its features with 2 short films about the late Zoe Tamerlis Lund, one from her husband and one from her mother. Drafthouse also interviews the composer who created an interesting score for the film. And, Drafthouse interviews the creative consultant who talks more about the social scene surrounding the film. With a new pristine transfer (the first VHS was just abhorable), it makes it hard not to dismiss this one.