MS. 45 (Abel Ferrara). 82 minutes. Opens Friday (January 10). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNN
What to make of nouveau-cult purveyors Drafthouse Films' revival of Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45, a film whose Wikipedia entry forcefully employs the made-up word "misandristic"?
Coming off a porno (1976's Nine Lives Of A Wet Pussy) and a cheapo horror film (1979's The Driller Killer), Ferrara rather tightly conceives a crossbreed of the I Spit On Your Grave-style rape/revenge thriller and Death Wish-style urban vigilante thriller. Its dusting off and revival - including this last-minute Toronto repertory screening - feels equally attuned to the more general revival in pulpy, trashy, so-bad-it's-good-cinema as it does Ferrara's recuperation as vulgar auteurism's poet of doomed urban crudity, bard of brownstones and back alleys, it's own New York City Man. Ferrara's cinephile street cred marks Ms. 45 some notches of seriousness that an otherwise jumbled piece of exploitation filmmaking might not otherwise merit.
(Though really, isn't that the work of our otherwise useless BAs? To deterministically cram every passably entertaining genre movie into one or another jerry-rigged critical framework in hopes of one day securing a $1,850 advance on royalties to write a Deep Focus monograph? Underemployed BAs everywhere agree...it is.)
Zoë Tamerlis stars as Thana, a mute New York City seamstress who is raped on the way home from work. Then again when she gets home. Subduing her second attacker (and later dismembering the body in the tub), Thana holds on to his .45 caliber pistol, and soon begins stalking the grubby New York City streets. Like Bronson's one-man army in Death Wish, she picks off not just threats but perceived threats. She targets the would-be rapists: the cat-callers, lecherous creeps, even the forlorn losers she meets in bars. In the fallout of her brutal rape(s), masculinity becomes commensurate with criminality, depravity and violence. It is a condition of degeneracy that must be chastened with -what else? - extreme prejudice.
The great British-Canadian film critic Robin Wood described "incoherent texts" as "works that do not know what they want say." Among these, Wood counts 1970s films like Taxi Driver, Cruising and Looking For Mr. Goodbar, all of which all share a more refined, higher brow DNA with Ferrara's film. (If Travis' avenging death dream in Taxi Driver belonged to Theresa in Mr. Goodbar, you might wind up with Ms. 45.) For Wood, films like these are so overburdened with certain cultural connotations that they can't help but be confused, responding in their weird ways to the "generalized crisis in ideological confidence" following the Vietnam War. Incoherent texts reflect something of the political and cultural confusion of the era, offering chaotic political subtexts frequently shot through with a much more legible nihilism.
Ms. 45 almost makes a joke of this idea of incoherence. In her muteness, Thana operates as an idealized cipher. Her actions are not only difficult to read (though Tamerlis' fluctuations between horror, unease and psychotically chilly confidence are admirably rendered), but beg interpretation never clearly offered by the films. In saying nothing, she allows whatever line of ideological argument - feminism, second-amendment boosterism, misandr...ism? - to speak through her. And it's easy to confuse this textual vacuity for open-ended richness.
Despite moments of giddy exploitainment, and even rarer moments of brooding pathos, Ms. 45's defining inarticulateness speaks less to its cultural overburdening than its director's insistence on having it every which way. Is it a joke that Ferrara, obscured by a chintzy clown mask, plays the assailant (credited as "First Rapist") that sets Thana on her quest for vengeance-slash-killing spree? Is it any surprise that he'd follow up a pseudo-feminist revenge thriller with Fear City, a detective-slasher about a serial killer picking off strippers? No.
By the time his silent heroine arrives at a Halloween party dressed as a sexed-up nun (and certainly by the time she opens fire in a tackily slo-mo killing spree) it's pretty clear that Ferara's only interested in female empowerment inasmuch as its suits his own dripping horndoggery. His intrusions of flat comedy (involving a prying landlady and her pesky dog) serve little function beyond wresting control away from Thana's punishment, offering unnecessary levity, lest we take the whole thing too seriously. He's the kind of guy who gets his kicks squirming under mistress's spiked boot heel only because he knows full well he can scream "uncle" the second things slip out of his control.