“Every day, on every street, in every city,” grimly intones the narrator, “women are insulted, abused, threatened.” The voice is Abel Ferrara’s, and this is the trailer for his sophomore feature, Ms 45. We see a striking young woman making her way down a bustling New York City street, while a succession of cat-callers leer and jeer at her. Her beauty is otherworldly and her expression is hard to place – somewhere between high anxiety and vacancy.
This is Zoë Lund as Thana, the titular Ms. “What’s her secret?”, Ferrara continues, audibly smirking. The trailer then goes on to outline, in a teasingly elliptical fashion, the film’s rape-revenge structure, giving a prospective grindhouse audience the rough idea. But it’s clear this is no ordinary exploitation quickie: the image of Lund dressed in a nun’s habit, lips painted blood red and wielding a pistol in slow-motion is more eerie than it is strictly sleazy. “What is she hiding?”, asks Ferrara. “Where is she going?”
Zoë Lund led a tragically short life and a consequently short career, both of which have become chiefly associated with Ferrara, though they only collaborated twice (she co-wrote and co-starred in his seminal Bad Lieutenant). A multifaceted and mercurial figure, Lund was an accomplished musician, a model, a novelist and a staunch advocate for the decriminalisation of Class A drugs. “She didn’t just love heroin,” punk rocker and NYC scenester Richard Hell said of Zoë, “she believed in it.” Lund was only 17 when Ms 45 began shooting (she turned 18 during the four weeks of principal photography), but she was given an enormous amount of freedom to shape her character and the film as a whole. “Every scene was more or a less a paragraph on a page” Lund herself would later recall, “and a lot of discussion went on.”
The film follows Thana, a mute garment worker scraping by in the big bad city. She’s alienated from her co-workers, patronised and pawed at by her lech of a boss, and subjected to a daily barrage of unwanted male attention on the mean streets of Manhattan. She appears to be totally helpless, as well as literally and figuratively voiceless. One day, returning home from a dispiriting day at work, Thana is raped twice – once in an alleyway by a mugger (Ferrara in a director’s cameo), and then again by a burglar in her apartment.
While Ferrara approaches these scenes with an exploitation filmmaker’s candour, he does so with no discernible eye towards titillation. This is supported by Lund’s performance, which heartbreakingly underlines the psychic damage of both events, and stresses dissociation over physical agony (atypical for the subgenre). Her approach is nuanced and considered, and Ferrara’s technique is blunt – a potent and disquieting mix.
During the second assault, Thana manages to bash the attacker over the head with a paperweight, then an iron, killing him. Over the next few days, she carves up the corpse, refrigerates the parts, and disposes of them piece-by-piece around the city. She keeps his gun. Her mania and paranoia begin to build – she’s tortured by visons of her landlady’s watchful eye and her bathtub drain bubbling with human innards. She is unable to look at her bare breasts in the mirror without seeing them groped by the hands of her rapist.
In one brilliantly conceived scene, Thana is comforted by her co-workers as she suffers something like a panic attack. As concerned faces loom over her, she silently grasps for words that simply are not there. Here Lund’s performance starkly evokes the alienation and terror of feeling oneself to be beyond help, and the ineffable fear that support might somehow come laced with malicious intent.
While out disposing of a bagged-up body part, Thana is hounded by a catcalling creep who inexplicably insists on returning said brown paper bag to her. He chases her down a dead-end alleyway, she turns to see him charging towards her and – without thinking – she blows him away with her newly acquired .45 calibre pistol. But this first murder offers no catharsis for Thana (and therefore relatively little for us). She returns to her apartment panicked and sickened. It’s not until her second murder that Thana discovers the restorative power of dealing death.
Her first pre-meditated target is a sleazy photographer who bothers her and her co-workers at lunch. Unlike Laurie (a particularly mouthy colleague), Thana isn’t able to tell the guy to “get bent” as he continues to pester her down the street. However, she is about to deliver a more permanent form of rebuttal. She shoots him dead in his own studio. She doesn’t even get out of the elevator.
Finally, Thana’s transformation into Ms 45 begins in earnest – a discrete new identity, that of an avenging angel, that she builds for herself. She discards her mousy attire and begins wearing heavy makeup. She spends her nights dispassionately offing men in the street: pimps, muggers, businessmen. Lund said that it was Thana’s muteness that allowed her to exercise a greater degree of control over the characterisation, and it’s at this point that she deftly modulates that silence from vulnerability to strength. We spend the film tethered to Thana, but once her reign of terror is in full-swing she starts to become obscure to us. Her painted face becomes a mask. She’s making herself into something inhuman.
It might be generous to describe Ms 45 as a feminist work, but it does upset the balance of the prototypical rape-revenge film in thoughtful and pointed ways. For instance, it explicitly places sexual assault on a continuum with catcalling and other more “innocent” forms of sexual pestering. In this way, the film does not position rape as an aberration, but as something endemic. Moreover, the protagonist’s revenge is not reserved for the men who wronged her (neither reappear). The vision that Thana brings to life through her violence is one wherein no man, under any circumstances, can ever hurt her again. But this anti-heroine persona does ultimately reveal itself as a deranged form of play.
Towards the end of the film, in a clear riff on Taxi Driver, Thana theatrically poses with her gun in front of the mirror. She playacts the massacre she’s about to visit upon her workplace’s Halloween party. She’s selected a nun costume for the occasion, a potent symbol of female purity – a woman without men. Lund’s performance in this moment is mesmerising. She’s at once childlike and monstrous, a self-made vision of twisted glamour.
The film up until this point has rested comfortably on her shoulders, but it’s during the climatic party sequence that her performance reaches an ecstatic peak. As she coldly picks off the male partygoers one-by-one, we see Thana totally subsumed by her fantasy. A lesser actor would let Thana become something purely symbolic at this point, but Lund’s performance keeps the tension between reality and fantasy ever present in our minds. Thana herself is not an abstraction, but rather she is a character who has found some measure of peace in embodying something abstract: vengeance.
Published 21 Feb 2023
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