Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Blogorium Review: Ms. 45

 Abel Ferrara's third film, Ms. 45, is an unusual entry into the "revenge" film subgenre. The trailer sells it as a vintage slice of grindhouse cinema, but in truth, Ferrara is less interested in titillation and cheap shocks than exploring a character slowly losing her grip on reality. In some ways, it is a "revenge" film, but not in the way that an I Spit on Your Grave is; I found odd but persistent parallels to Taxi Driver throughout Ms. 45, although the films approach their respective protagonists very differently.

 What causes Thana (Zoë Tamerlis) to radically shift from a meek seamstress to a an alluring siren of death is, even for grindhouse films, a pretty rough way to start a movie: on the way home from work, Thana is dragged into an alley and raped by a man in a mask (played by the director, billed as "Jimmy Laine"), and when she pulls herself together from that violation, she comes home to find another criminal who broke in and is furious that he can't find any money. He decides to also rape the already shell-shocked Thana, but she manages to subdue and, ultimately, kill him. Thana, unsure of what to do, cuts his body into pieces and stuffs him in the fridge and freezer, determining it would be best to leave his parts around New York City, so as not to raise suspicion. She also finds his .45 next to the couch, which brings us to the next phase of Ms. 45.

 The content of the film certainly fits inside of the wheelhouse of "grindhouse" and "revenge" cinema, but there are some critical distinctions that are likely to surprise fans looking for some cheap, grimy thrills.  Both rape scenes are grim, unpleasant affairs, with limited nudity that focus more on violation. The horror plays out on Thana's face, and what little nudity that follows is almost always coupled with a traumatic memory of the one-two punch that sets the narrative in motion. Unlike most "grindhouse" cinema, we're not meant to enjoy the taboo, but to experience it for what it is - in that respect, Ms. 45's opening is similar to Irreversible. The other factor that separates Ms. 45 from most "revenge" films is the fact that the first rapist never returns - while the violation of I Spit in Your Grave is atrocious, the audience gets some satisfaction from the brutal retaliation on the men who committed it later in the film. What happens instead in Ms. 45 at first seems to be a cultural statement about macho stereotypes and Lotharios in the late 70s and early 80s, but then turns into something quite different.

 What I found most interesting is that the first time Thana kills someone with the .45, it's the result of panic, but not totally unjustified. Like nearly every man in the film, the greaser who chases after her is introduced trying to pick up literally any woman who walks past him, but the reason he's chasing Thana has nothing to do with sex. He mistakenly thinks that she forgot her bag (in fact, just a body part) and is trying to return it to her, and when she runs down an alleyway and panics, she shoots him point blank in the head. It's an accidental reaction and happens for reasons neither fully understand, but it sets Thana on a different path for the rest of the film. She begins dressing more provocatively, wandering the streets at night, and finding men who stalk her, and then kills them ruthlessly.

 This is not to say that most of the men in Ms. 45 don't deserve what's coming to them, at least initially. The best example is a sleazy fashion photographer introduced making out with his girlfriend in a restaurant where Thana and her coworkers are eating lunch. As soon as the girl leaves, he begins to hit on their table, and manages to talk Thana into coming up to his studio, only it doesn't quite work out the way that he planned (the scene is reminiscent of Blow Up, or perhaps Brian DePalma's early film Murder à la Mod ). Other random street thugs get theirs, including an impressive scene where Thana kills five guys surrounding her in rapid succession (Ferrara never does explain how she learned to shoot with such accuracy and only once addresses the lingering question of ammunition).

 As the film goes on, however, Thana's grip on being "wronged" by men slips away. She picks up a guy at a bar who relays a long story about his wife cheating on him with another woman, which ends with him accidentally killing himself. In another scene, Thana decides to kill a young man who doesn't even know she exists, but has committed the cardinal sin of making out with his girlfriend in front of a Baskin Robbins. She fails in killing him only because he manages to open the door to his apartment building (without ever knowing his life was in danger), but her frustration at not shooting him is the first sign of misplaced aggression. Her boss, Albert (Albert Sinkys), a fashion designer, initially seems to be overbearing but sympathetic to her trauma, but shifts to just another sex starved creep by the end of the film. At the end (SPOILER), Thana goes on a shooting rampage at a Halloween party, indiscriminately gunning down any man she sees, whether or not they made any passing glances at her. In the end, she's taken down by a co-worker, Laurie (Darlene Stuto), who she can't bring herself to shoot. Laurie, by the way, is holding a knife like this, which can't be mistaken for anything but a phallic metaphor:

(in case you're wondering, that's how she holds it the entire time)

There's something important worth mentioning that makes Ms. 45 more unorthodox from its "revenge" ilk: Ferrara and Tamerlis made the unorthodox choice to play Thana as mute, so that we see everything play out on her face, but without ever hearing her say anything. Tamerlis does wonders conveying the transformation of Thana, first as timid and withdrawn, to overwhelmed and traumatized, and finally to a woman unwilling to deal with the amorous advances of men in New York. It also gives the added benefit that her undivided attention to many of her victims is read as interest, and not a single one of them ever seems to be aware that she can't talk. That they don't care is only more damning and essentially seals their fate.

 It seems unlikely that Ferrara and screenwriter Nichols St. John chose the name Thana ("what is that, Greek?" "It is to you.") for their protagonist and didn't intend it to be a reference to Thanatos, the Greek personification of Death. Ms. 45 is littered with references to Thanatos, Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle (which describes the dueling creative forces of Eros [love] and Thanatos [death], a central theme in the film), and a few, less subtle, religious allegories. The first rape leaves Thana curled up in a fetal position in the alleyway, with an apple at her feet, and the second ends when she smashes a glass apple into the head of her (pun intended) intruder. The "loss of innocence" metaphor, coupled with her final burst of violence dressed as a nun during a Halloween party, is unlikely to just be a coincidence.

 I mentioned Taxi Driver earlier, and while Travis Bickle seems to wait the entire movie to finally burst into violence, there is a component of his nihilistic outlook on life that is mirrored in Thana for much of Ms. 45. As she transitions from drawing out the worst examples of masculinity (and ending them) to randomly attacking anything that resembles sexual activity - whether it involves her or not - there's something about Bickle's misanthropy that is familiar. Near the end, there's a scene that's very hard to argue isn't Ms. 45's equivalent of "you talking to me?" despite the fact that Thana cannot, in fact, talk to the mirror. The explosion of violence at the end (again, directed at men in both films, but for somewhat different reasons*) is similarly chaotic, and their mental states are comparable heading in the the climax of their respective narratives.

 There's certainly more under the surface than just gratuitous violence and nudity in Ms. 45, something that might surprise audiences who only know it from the poster or seeing the trailer on the 42nd Street Forever compilation. I was pleasantly surprised, and when I realized that Zoë Tamerlis was the same Zoë Lund who wrote Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, it made a certain kind of sense. Abel Ferrara has always found as way to imbue the trashy with art house sensibilities, so if you don't mind not getting nudity every fifteen minutes in your "revenge" film, or a film that challenges the idea of satisfaction through violence, Ms. 45 will be a refreshing experience to the subgenre. It's not always pleasant, and given the subject matter, it really shouldn't be. If you aren't coming in looking for grimy kicks, you might find something really interesting to come away with.

 * Since the central premise of Ms. 45 is about men treating women as nothing more than objects, one could argue that Travis Bickle killing pimps and johns is actually doing exactly the same thing than Thana is doing, if for a different reason, although by that point in Thana's story she's just killing any man she sees.

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