Talk about rape culture. Mute, mousy doormat Thana heads home from her job at a crappy dawn-of-the-’80s Manhattan fashion house one afternoon and is sexually assaulted twice—once by a gibbering creep in a clown mask. So far, so sleazy, and all things being equal, you would be forgiven for bailing on director Abel Ferrara’s grindhouse gem right there.
But there is the Chekhovian promise of the title: “Ms. 45.” Sure enough, Thana (Zoë Lund, nee Tamerlis) overcomes her passivity long enough to overcome her second attacker, and takes up his pistol—in the titular caliber—for a revenge spree, blowing away catcallers, lecherous slimeballs, and soon, anyone with a pair.
“Ms. 45”’s exploitation cruddiness leaps out at you. The blood is house-paint red and copious. The male characters are venal swine, dismissive and forever on the make with their cartoon leers and outsized lapels. The Manhattan seen here is a dingy, depopulated, garbage-heaped shadow of the gelato-slinging upscale mall of NYC today. There’s more to Ferrara’s film than its 42nd Street bona fides, though. His sui generis artsploitation hits “King of New York” and “Bad Lieutenant” were a decade in the future, but his visceral skills with a camera already allow him to depict Thana dismembering her attacker in about four deft, discrete shots. He’s also got enough traditional Hollywood chops to make the most of repeated comic bits with the landlady’s dog. (Lest you begin to mistake Ferrara as a slumming sensibility attuned to far-finer things, he was behind the clown mask in the first sequence.)
It’s in the psychosexual realm where “Ms. 45” really plays over its head. There was a boom of vigilante flicks in the ’70s and early ’80s, a number of them female-fueled “rape-revenge” narratives. Amid all its grit, Ferrara’s film stands out from the pack for its willingness to embrace (or at least not sand off) the complexities. His heroine signals her newfound murderous agency by slathering her full lips with blood-red lipstick, and the more men she blows away, the cuter and sleeker her outfits get. It’s as if Ferrara is creating a near-superheroic avenger figure from Thana (plug “thanatos” into your search engine and see what you get).
At the same time, Lund’s traumatized intensity comes off not as calculated, but compelled, her holler-backs-with-extreme-prejudice driven by madness and desperation more than cold vengeance. By the time she dons a nun’s habit to shoot up a Halloween party full of costumed revelers (scored to the kitschy synth-and-sax disco soundtrack of a crate-digger’s dreams), Ferrara’s crazed urban saga has paid off like a slot machine as both trashy fun and incidental feminist text.