At a certain point, Abel Ferrara’s low-budget cult rape-revenge film Ms. 45 looks less like a movie and more like a series of decisions. Without funds to throw around, every scene is economical: every gesture doubles as a symbol. So, as within a dream, every symbol counts.
We start with the girl: she’s an actual mute, named Thana, a diminutive for “Thanatos” (Zoë Tamerlis Lund). She’s a garment worker in New York City in 1981, which means that despite having a big-city working-woman job, it’s a familiar domestic job possessing familiar domestic opportunities for suggestive error, e.g. leaving the hot iron on the silk blouse too long when she’s distracted by waking nightmares of the men who raped her. She is raped not once, but twice over the course of the same ten-minute walk home from work: first by a man in a truly scary mask who yanks her into an alley and assaults her over a garbage can, second by a burglar who’s broken into her apartment, there to greet her when she stumbles, dazed, into the living room, her blouse ripped open and smeared with gutter slime. They could be the same man but for the pacing, which has Rapist 2 breaking in through her kitchen window before Rapist 1 grabs her on the street. In the act, Thana knocks out her second assailant with a glass paperweight, and once free, bludgeons his head with an iron. She dumps his corpse in her bathtub but keeps his handgun, the .45 of the title. (Rapist 1 remains at large; the credits reveal him to be played by the director, Ferrara, himself.)
Thana continues to go to work. Her boss is a benevolent tyrant, gay in affect until he wants to date her; he rubs her neck too much. She can’t tell the guys who come on to her to Fuck Off, like her coworker does, a tomboy who wears pants and her hair cut short. Where her friend’s backtalk nips unwanted advances in the bud, Thana’s silence reads to the men around her as an invitation. Eventually, she starts carrying the gun. She hacks Rapist 2, still stashed in her bathtub, into pieces, dumping trash bags full of his remains around the city two at a time. When one sleazy guy chases after her—Hey lady! You forgot your bag!—she panics and shoots him. Her muteness offers a good enough explanation for why she’s a perfect shot: she’s a cowboy.
The phallic imagery is unsubtle, as if reverse engineered from feminist film theory. Thana goes on a spree: she has the gun now. She begins to dress like a dominatrix, heavily made up, as she starts killing men for sport; she circles her mouth in a thick fire engine red—the same red as the paint-blood of her victims—a few too many times in front of the mirror to appear sane. She poses with the gun before the mirror, Taxi Driver–style, practicing. For her final act, she wears a nun’s habit to the Halloween party her boss has demanded she attend, and shoots every man in sight. To put an end to the massacre, her friend—the loud one—stands behind her with a cake knife, which she holds at crotch-level for several long, conspicuous seconds, just to make sure the audience knows what the blade is standing in for. Then she lunges and stabs Thana literally in the back. With an expiring hiss, Thana turns to her friend and speaks for the first and last time: Sisssssteerrrrr!
Despite all this leading symbolism, it would be a mistake, I think, to try to decode the moral universe of Ms. 45 from these choices—to try to figure out what arguments are implied by choice of weapon, why two rapists and not one or three, why some men die and some don’t. It’s an exploitation movie, which means it panders to desire and tells an audience more about itself than the issue on display. What Ms. 45 tells us about ourselves is that we still need to see a woman shooting her rapists and the men who remind her of them, and yes, while wearing a nun costume. It feels good. It does something for us. Arguments can be made for the poverty of vocabulary—Ms. 45 is an index of proto-feminist clichés—but there’s a need. We’re mad.
On first viewing, I wanted to be “over” Ms. 45. I wanted to think that there was a more nuanced recognition of rape and abuse in effect today, and that the revenge fantasy on offer here was not badass and empowering but dated, expressing a past need to find false equivalents between rape and murder, which are not equal and opposite. I wanted to point out the double bind in which a rape revenge movie is also a free pass to depict gratuitous rape onscreen, and count that against the film’s feminist glee. But as the news continues to remind us—most recently, the flurry surrounding Dylan Farrow’s account of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, Woody Allen, and the media’s attempts to poke holes in her testimony—the world still imposes the miserable expectation on survivors that they live on quietly but don’t forget it. At bottom, this is what Ms. 45 pushes back against. We’re not as far past it as we might have hoped, and in all its campy simplicity, Ms. 45 still provides something like catharsis.
I sometimes wonder if a rape revenge film of 2014 would be a survivor’s film: a person is raped, survives, and the event is not the final ruling on her life. No sublimation required, no self-immolation in seeking out revenge commensurate to the offense. Living itself is vengeance. But the fantasy of the gun is one of finality. Discourse and testimony are exhausting. Defending oneself after speaking out is exhausting. Constant recapitulation is exhausting. No more explaining: bang. On a week like this, one sees the appeal.