Going My Way

Howard Hampton on Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45

Abel Ferrara, Ms. 45, 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 81 minutes. Thanta (Zoe Tamerlis).

MS. 45 (1981) has to be the most succinct, eye-popping title in movie history. Four point-blank characters—a single abbreviation, and a double-digit number—typed out on the screen to the sound of gunshots and punctuated by a bullet hole! More than a title, it is its own self-generating graphic, instantly telegraphing a cruelly concrete meaning (woman-grabs-a-gun-and-goes-ballistic) together with a cornucopia of suggestiveness: This is NYNY, capital of vice and degradation, city of Mickey Spillane, Weegee, Taxi Driver, Son of Sam, “Street Hassle”–era Lou Reed, Cindy Sherman, Times Square grindhouses, screaming New York Post headlines, and Lydia Lunch on the half shell.

“Starring Zoe Tamerlis as…”: the daughter of Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Anne Wiazemsky’s violated waif in Au hasard Balthazar, as striking and flatly unadorned a performance as anything this side of Pickpocket or Jeanne Dielman. Tamerlis’s Thanta—short for Thanatos, Thantology, maybe Thanta Claus—is a mute who works in the garment district, sewing dresses for a petty-tyrannical designer, one step or so above sweatshop conditions. Walking home from work past a scuzzy gauntlet of catcalling male harassers, she’s pulled into an alleyway and raped by a masked assailant. When she staggers into her apartment, bloody and half undressed, she encounters a burglar who assaults her all over again; he thinks her torn-and-frayed look is hot. (Played by director Abel Ferrara, it’s a pointed gutterball cameo that beats Hitchcock for either irony or honesty.)

This time, though, she finds an apple-shaped paperweight and strikes back, then finishes her dazed attacker off with a steam iron. The cutaway from the coup de grâce to a close-up of a couple eggs frying in her neighbor’s kitchen indicates both the formal attention and macabre, precisionist wit of Ms. 45—Ferrara gives you plenty of rigor to go with the mortis. Tamerlis’s disposal of the body is a masterpiece of amok home economics and repurposed domesticity: maneuvering the corpse into her bathroom, lifting him into the tub, cutting off his right arm, and sensibly wrapping it in a copy of the Village Voice. (Not only was the weekly a great cultural institution in those days, but the paper apparently doubled as “the quicker picker-upper” to boot—and what writer hasn’t dreamed of seeing their byline interpolated into a Ferrara or Jarmusch frame?)

What’s terrific about the film is the way Ferrara is able to delineate a fierce sense of 1980 New York as a sparse, poisonously fertile combat zone where the daily grind of alienated work, dread, tedium, social compartmentalization, and impersonality cohabit with untold allegorical possibilities. In Thanta’s case, she not only rises from the near-dead but is roused from a sleepwalking existence of drudgery and exploitation. Armed with her attacker’s .45 automatic, she isn’t so much the angelic avenger as an instrument of God’s inscrutable design: Tamerlis plays her as a wide-eyed extraterrestrial who vacillates between anguish, detachment, and stricken awe. She becomes a participant in the horror and sorrow of the world even as she seeks to purify herself of it.

Awakened to her calling, going from mousy to dressing “provocatively,” she’s not especially discriminating about whom she dispatches. Some in this shooting gallery of potential rapists surely have it coming, but one man chases her because he’s trying to return the bag she dropped. (It contains more of her dead rapist’s remains.) An ambiguous photographer she blasts without warning may be a cologne-drenched pickup artist but he could also be halfway sincere about wanting her for a model: Thanta had the gamin look of an unmoored Audrey Hepburn. Or when she dons a kinky nun costume for the Halloween finale—the most arresting image in the movie—a mad, mad, mad Ingrid Bergman.

The future coauthor of Bad Lieutenant (where she cameos as a chillingly self-destroying version of herself), Tamerlis here has a quotidian presence that bleeds into an abstracted reverie of saintliness and stigmata. It’s a mixture of initiation and revelation: She’s sucked into the violent undertow of sexism that blankets the city like a scummy fog, but she feeds off the disgust and the deviance too. (Her boss is flamingly gay but still comes on to her—men are such hopeless pigs here that their default sexual orientation is “anything that moves.”)

Ferrara brings moral questions and human agency together with all these satiric elements and genre riffs and furtive spiritual asides, as a physical part of the fabric of city life. The filth flows through the same spaces as art, jacked-up impulses bounce off contemplative figurations: The staged violence can be raw and shocking or distant and incorporeal. The most harrowing scene in Ms. 45 is an abrupt sequence where Tamerlis jaywalks with a yapping little dog in the middle of a busy street. It doesn’t looked staged, this hard jump cut into them with traffic bearing down on as they dodge the screaming drivers and delivery trucks. There’s a genuine atmosphere of freedom at play, but danger too: working without safety nets or stunt coordinators or insurance, without any kind of studio or institutional framework. Rush out into traffic—it’ll make a great shot if you both aren’t run over. The most unnerving scene, though, is when Thanta’s gun jams as she tries to shoot a man on a bench. He takes it from her and coolly blows his own brains out.

By now, Travis Bickle and his “You-talkin’-to-me?” baggage is finally ready for mothballs, while Tamerlis’s Thanta has the quizzical, undiscovered freshness of a figure that hasn’t been rehashed to death. There is a lot to love about Ms. 45, but its spindly, splendidly arrayed decor is especially full of tiny, deeply evocative touches: handmade Halloween place settings in a restaurant, a poster of Raúl Juliá from The Threepenny Opera hovering in the background when Thanta’s apartment has become a crime scene. The art direction was by Ruben Masters (otherwise known as “Ruby”), a name you won’t find on IMDB, but one to reckon with: As half of the team (along with the late Michael Constant) that would take the pseudonym “Veronika Rocket,” in 1983 she went on to codirect Smoker, the wittiest, most darkly innovative, visually sophisticated, and slyly seditious porn film ever made. Some enterprising programmer ought to put the two films together, because that’s a double bill that could send a few shock waves through the body politic—are you listening, Film Society of Lincoln Center?

Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 is available on Blu-ray from Drafthouse Films on March 25, 2014.