Abel Ferrera’s directorial career has spanned grindhouse to arthouse, making his debut with a hardcore porn film – 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976) – and ending up, four decades later, the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The best of his films encompass both ends of the spectrum simultaneously, upending the very idea of each as the other’s opposite: grimy exploitation and transcendent beauty, all at once.
Forty years ago this month he released his second non-pornographic feature, the rape-revenge thriller Ms .45. When it comes to rape-revenge movies, Ms .45 was far from a pioneer: the genre peaked in popularity in the 1970s, and Ms .45 was released in 1981, years after Thriller: A Cruel Picture or I Spit on Your Grave. Like all exploitation movies, Ms .45 got bad reviews on release, but even then it was evident there was more to it than the typical cheap thriller: “The regrettable thing about Ms. 45,” Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times, ”…is that it has been freshly and interestingly directed most of the way through.”
Years before she would co-write (and possibly co-direct) Bad Lieutenant with Ferrera, a teenage Zoë Lund plays Thana, a mute garment worker who is raped twice in the first ten minutes of the movie. First, a masked man (played by Ferrera) grabs her on her walk home from work, raping her at gunpoint. When she makes it back to her apartment, she finds a man waiting for her after breaking in, and he rapes her as well. During this second rape, she manages to grab a paperweight and hit her assailant over the head, before proceeding to finish him off with an iron. She dismembers his body, and spends the rest of film disposing of it piece by piece. With her rapist dead, she begins a transformation that culminates in a blood-soaked revenge rampage.
The rape scenes themselves set out the film’s parameters really well: they’re notably restrained – not salacious or sexualised at all – and centre Ms .45’s best asset: Lund’s knockout performance as Thana. In both scenes, the camera stays trained on Thana’s face, and her facial expressions – her pain, fear, and a desperate alchemy of defiance and resignation – solidify the rapes as an act of power, humiliation, and violence, effectively precluding voyeuristic titillation for the audience. It’s unequivocally Lund’s movie: she’s instantly magnetic, giving the kind of performance that can make someone a cinematic icon in one go. Thana’s mutism means that like the great silent movie stars, she does all her acting with her body and – with Ferrera’s liberal use of close-ups – her face.
Thana’s mutism feels like a response to a very different kind of rape-revenge movie. In Death Wish (1974), the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter are treated as little more than an inciting incident for Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) to go on a killing spree against New York muggers. The rape itself is shot in graphic, leering detail, with her assaulters exposing her breasts and spray-painting her butt. Paul’s daughter is so traumatised by her rape that she goes mute, and is eventually admitted to a mental hospital long-term, shuffling her conveniently out of the movie. Ms .45 dispenses with Paul as an unnecessary middle man: the mute rape survivor does her own avenging murders.
But whereas Paul’s targets amount to class warfare (the pains Death Wish goes to say he’s not racist, we promise, just underscore that his victims are exclusively poor and working-class people, across races), Thana’s are a gender war. As Carol J. Clover highlights in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, both Thana and Ms .45’s audience begin to notice “that in every corner of life, men take it as their due to dominate and abuse women.” One man, who goes on and on about his ex-wife, culminating in the reveal that he strangled her cat after seeing her in bed with another woman, doesn’t even notice Thana’s mute: he takes her silence as a sign she’s listening intently, if he thinks about it at all. Thana kills pimps hassling sex workers, a sheikh who picks her up for sex, and would-be gang rapists who surround her like black hats in a western. Men are waging war against women all the time. Thana’s just getting in a few shots of her own.
That’s not to say Thana is represented straightforwardly as a feminist emancipator. She’s something much more complicated than that. Her mutism allows Lund to both reveal and obscure her depths: sometimes a well-timed blink or the grip of the gun in her hand feel like a direct line to her soul, and sometimes it feels like there’s much more going on inside her than we will ever understand. She’s a feminine cousin to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: a violent, disturbed loner, practising her moves in the mirror. But where Travis carves crosses into his bullets, Thana kisses hers, her mouth painted red.
“Ms. 45” is now streaming on Tubi.