What if Paul Kersey in Death Wish had been a woman? Or, more to the point, what if Kersey’s abused daughter had gotten a gun and avenged herself, rather than becoming a catatonic vegetable while her grief-stricken father goes from bleeding-heart liberal to blood-splattering vigilante, getting her revenge for her? This is the scenario explored by Abel Ferrara’s 1981 film Ms. 45.
Coming two years after Ferrara’s stunning debut The Driller Killer, Ms. 45 was initially seen as little more than another grindhouse revenge film. Film critic Janet Maslin, writing in the New York Times called it “A Woman Doing a ‘Death Wish’ Job.” That’s not an unfair characterization, since on the surface, that’s exactly what it is. It is also, just as obviously, an extreme feminist political film. But unlike its near contemporary Times Square, which was a kind of ‘grrl power’ celebration of young women behaving rebelliously and choosing to playfully ally themselves to the racial and sexual minorities of The Deuce, Ms. 45’s feminism is reactionary, even fascistic, in the same way that Paul Kersey and Dirty Harry were called fascists for taking the law into their own hands.
The tone is set a mere three minutes into the film, when the girls get off work (at five o’clock sharp because the boss says he’s “not paying overtime”) and walk down the street. The camera shifts to their perspective, and we see an endless line of men on the busy streets of New York, who eye up the girls and let out cat calls and crude comments like “Hey girl, you wanna sit on my face?”
The entire story is told from a female point of view, which is a little odd because the writer (Nicholas St. John) and director are both men. Also, the main character, Thana (played by the late Zoë Tamerlis Lund), is mute, and so we are never privy to anything except the surface of things. We can only guess at what’s going on in her mind.
The film is dense with symbolism. The name Thana comes from the Greek thanatos, “death,” and later in the film, they basically spell this out for us in the dialogue. “Thana. What a charming name. Is it Greek?” “It’s Greek to you, Bob.” When Thana is raped – twice in the same day, which is the cause of her transformation into “Ms. 45” – she hits the second rapist on the head with a glass apple (Adam and Eve) and then finishes him off with a clothing iron, a symbol of ‘women’s work’ at home, which is doubly meaningful for Thana since she is employed as a lowly garment worker in Manhattan’s Garment District. (Zoë Tamerlis Lund said that the film is as much “pro-garment worker” as “pro-woman.”)
Although Thana kills the second rapist – then dismembers his body in the bathtub and stores the pieces in her refrigerator – her first assailant gets away. What’s more, he wore a mask (he was portrayed by Abel Ferrara himself) and so he becomes, in Thana’s mind, a symbol of men in general. Because he could be any man, he becomes for her every man, out there, waiting to attack again. And from that point on, woe unto any man that crosses her path.
In Death Wish, Paul Kersey becomes a vigilante who targets criminals. Sometimes he entraps them, by walking around alone at night, or, as in Death Wish 3, by showing off an expensive camera to tempt the thieves in his midst. But Thana’s murderous impulse is triggered not only by male violence against women, as when she kills a pimp who’s beating up a prostitute, but also by virtually any expression of male sexual desire. When a man tries to pick her up on the street by pretending to be a hot shot fashion photographer, she kills him in cold blood. When she sees a young couple kissing on the street in Chinatown (a location that Ferrara would revisit later in China Girl) she stalks the young man and tries to kill him as well.
Since Ms. 45 so easily lends itself to political interpretations, it should be mentioned that Thana is a colorblind killer. She shoots white men, black men (including a nunchuk-wielding youth who does a ridiculously funny Bruce Lee imitation), Chinese, Latino, and even a wealthy Saudi Arabian businessman who mistakes her for a streetwalker. Why would he think such a thing? Perhaps in part because, by this point in the film, Ms. 45 is one sexy serial killer, something that was used to promote the film on the original poster art. (Using sex to sell a feminist film! Feminine guile, postmodern irony, or patriarchal subversion?)
Throughout the movie, Thana’s outfits become more and more fashionable and alluring. In the beginning, she’s a cute but unremarkable girl who doesn’t really stand out amongst the other women at the garment shop. By the end, she’s wearing garter belts and heavy make-up, turning heads everywhere and giving a new meaning to the phrase “dressed to kill.” Earlier in the film, she writes a note to one of her co-workers saying, “I just wish they would leave me alone.” “They” presumably means men. But we have to question the sincerity of this wish as Thana then goes out of her way to attract men with her appearance.
There are multiple ways to interpret this. The Thana-as-feminist-vigilante interpretation would hold that she is conforming her appearance to male desire only to use it as bait, to attract more victims, the same way Paul Kersey slings that expensive camera over his shoulder. That’s certainly possible. But the fact that she goes after men whose only ‘crime’ is kissing a girl or trying to pick one up suggests that it’s more complicated than this.
Thana is both fascinated and repulsed by male sexuality. While having lunch at The Brew Burger, she can’t keep her eyes off the couple making out at a table across from her. But then, when the man takes this as a sign of interest and tries to hook up with Thana after his girlfriend has left, she kills him for it. He’s a dog, sure – but does he really deserve to be put down?
Ferrara himself has said, “Beyond the reasons that this girl has to kill – revenge, justice, all that – there is also pleasure of a sexual kind in violence.” In other words, she has become a kind of female rapist. The conflation of sex and violence that is inherent in rape has been internalized, and now thrust back out into the world. In yet another piece of potent symbolism, the .45 caliber pistol that Thana uses to commit all the murders belonged to one of the men who raped her. She appropriated it for her own use. As Ames says in Death Wish, “You’re probably one of them knee-jerk liberals who think us gun boys shoot our guns because it’s an extension of our penises.”
Phallic symbolism also shows up in the final scene, when Thana’s killing spree finally comes to an end at a Halloween party hosted by her boss. Throughout the party, we hear snippets of conversation in which the men are, in one way or another, talking about sex. One man talks about paying $300 for a virgin in Puerto Rico. Another man argues with his wife because he doesn’t want to have a vasectomy. This scene is basically a complement to the cat-calling scene at the beginning, and further shows us the film’s Thana-centric perspective: men are animals who only care about sex.
But Thana, after a murderous rampage, ends up being killed by one of her female co-workers, who stabs her with a knife. Looking at the way she holds the knife before sticking it in, there is no mistaking what it represents.
Although the New York Times saw Ms. 45 as a female Death Wish, a more apt comparison is Taxi Driver. Travis Bickle has that same mix of confused, repressed sexuality, such that he likes watching porno films but is offended by real-life prostitution. Travis apparently suffered some kind of trauma in Vietnam (one reading of Taxi Driver is as a portrait of PTSD, not unlike First Blood) and Thana has suffered through rape. As a result, both characters can now only express an element of their repressed or damaged sexuality through violence.
It’s easy to see Ms. 45 as a critique of patriarchal society and male behavior, and Thana, as a kind of tragic heroine. The newest press release for the film calls it “empowering.” But Thana’s heroic status is as tenuous as Travis Bickle’s. Travis killed pimps and scumbags, and the press hailed him for it. But the audience knows that his motives were more deranged than moral – even if we also were inclined to cheer a bit. Likewise, the audience knows that not everyone Thana killed had it coming, though some probably did, and that she was not so much dispensing God’s justice as she was acting out the delusions of her abused psyche. That she ends her life dressed as a nun with garter belts and silk stockings under her habit perfectly symbolizes the contradictions in her character – celibate, sexual, peaceful, violent, victim, murderer.
Abel Ferrara is certainly one of the greatest filmmakers to emerge from the New York milieu of the 70s and 80s. Like Martin Scorsese, Ferrara is a product of Little Italy, about which he made the documentary Mulberry St., available on the Driller Killer blu-ray special edition. Also like Scorsese, there is a deep Catholicism that informs many of Ferrara’s films. Ms. 45 can also be read as a meditation on justice in a fallen world, just as his later film The Addiction is a profound statement on the nature of sin.
There are B-movies which are both enjoyable as surface-level schlock and open to deeper philosophical analysis (see here for example). But Ms. 45 is not one of them. The subject matter is too harrowing. It demands to be taken seriously, which is probably why it initially failed on the grindhouse circuit. But it’s gone on to become a cult classic, recently enjoying a beautiful restoration and re-release by Drafthouse Films.
While you can’t exactly kick back with popcorn and a six-pack for this one, you can still appreciate some of the exquisite shots of New York City circa ’80-’81.
You can also enjoy some of the dialogue, such as the bag lady who says, “All women do is laugh and sing and say the word ‘pussy.’ You ask any doctor and he’ll tell you that.”
Finally, there’s the soundtrack by Ferrara collaborator Joe Delia, which was recently released on vinyl and mp3, and which contains the awesome No Wave inspired “Ms. 45 Dance Party” from the final scene.