Judge Michael Nazarewycz thinks "Ms. 45" is a much cooler nickname than "Ms. Red Ryder Carbine Action Two-Hundred Shot Range Model Air Rifle."
It's no longer a man's world…
A preceding reputation can be a tricky thing.
I avoid reading reviews of films in advance of seeing them, but it is nearly impossible, particularly in the age of Twitter, to avoid learning at least what the general consensus of a film is. This is challenging enough with new releases, but it is exponentially more challenging with catalogue titles. Tack on the reality of a rabid cult following and suddenly, without reading a word of opinion or analysis, I already know a film is beloved before I unwrap the disc. Such is the case with Ms. 45.
In the run-up to the Blu-ray release of the film, the social media circles in which I travel have been gradually working themselves into quite the lather over the film's uncut, Blu-ray release. It was time for me to decide if this '80s gem (that somehow eluded me beck in the glory days of Cinemax), was worth the hype.
Facts of the Case
Thana (Zoë Tamerlis, Bad Lieutenant) is a seamstress for an up-and-coming New York fashion designer. She is also a mute. One evening after work, while walking home from the grocery store, Thana is pulled into an alley by a masked assailant and raped. Physically and emotionally devastated, she staggers home only to find a burglar in her apartment. That criminal ups the ante on his crime and rapes her as well. She fights back this time, subduing her attacker with several blows to the head and then bludgeoning him to death with a clothes iron.
In shock, Thana puts the dead man's body in her tub and leaves him there until the next day, when she decides to cut up his body and store the pieces in her refrigerator until she can dispose of them individually and in random places. She keeps his .45, however. After an incident that she mistakes for being stalked leads to her killing the would-be stalker, she gradually becomes a silent angel of vengeance, killing men who prey on women. But her taste for revenge grows and soon her targets change from "guilty men" to simply "men."
My social media circles got this one right; Ms. 45's hype is earned, and it all relies on how the title character evolves and how the violence in her life is portrayed.
Thana's initial construct is one of considerable weakness. She is a mute in a city with the loudest voice on the planet. She is a seamstress in a workplace of designers. She is homely in an glamorous industry. She is a woman in a man's world. To call her the "perfect victim" is a little ghoulish as it suggests that victims can be ranked based on attributes, but if the plain brown shoe fits. Also, the "perfect victim" moniker works because she isn't a target; it she were, it would feel contrived. Instead, the randomness of her victimization is made more sympathetic by her normal-world plight.
Speaking of being victimized, Thana is raped twice, another dreadful coincidence that garners sympathy rather than strains credulity because of the old adage that "the only believable coincidence is a bad one," and Thana's considerable weakness. It's interesting to note that the rape scenes aren't graphic; you get the point but there is little flesh displayed. They don't need to be graphic scenes because they aren't about the act (aside from the act needing to be severe), they're about the victimization of Thana.
After she takes her first life—that of her second attacker—it's her weakness that leaves her no choice but to dismember him. This sounds counterintuitive, but in her mind, no one would possibly believe a mute was raped twice in one day. This is the turning point of Thana's life; the control she has over the situation gives her a sense of power she's never felt before.
If she was in for a dime at this point, she goes in for the whole dollar after her second killing—an unfortunate circumstance, really, but a pivotal one. She uses the gun she took from her second attacker and after that shooting she understands the power that she (thinks she) has over the predators of the city. Her killings are at first crimes of opportunity, moments she recognizes when they are upon her (and for which she is prepared). But she eventually turns to looking for trouble, even if finding it means the bad guys are closer to just guys than bad.
With her exploits on the front page of the New York Post, she is no longer the weakest person in the city, but the most powerful.
What I like so much about her transformation from meek to mighty is that it only happens in her actions. She doesn't become a wildly different person at work; nor does she become some deranged shut-in serial killer, keeping souvenirs from her victims; nor does she think she's being directed by God (although she looks fabulous at a costume party dressed as a nun for the film's spectacular finale). Yes, the thoughts of everything distract her from her daily routine, but she never becomes crazed with it.
While this film is in the same "citizen vigilante" vein of films like 1974's Death Wish, it is set apart by the fact that the protagonist is a woman taking action as a result of affronts against her own person, as opposed to a male vigilante, like Charles Bronson, who takes action in response to something done to a loved one.
These are the easy highlights. Ms. 45 is the kind of film that is so layered that it would take numerous viewings and tens of thousands more words to properly encapsulate the entirety of the film, with analysis to be done on everything from the significance of the landlady's dog to the phallic symbolism of the bullets Thana kisses while wearing the nuns habit. Someday I might just make the time.
Remastering the film from the original negative and presenting it in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Drafthouse and Cinedigm offer an excellent 1080p transfer of the Ms. 45 (Blu-ray). The best way I can describe the presentation is that it's so clean, it looks like a new film shot to look like a film that was made in 1981. It has all of the feel of the era from which it came without any signs of its actual age. The daytime scenes capture the grit of an an early-'80s, pre-cleaned-up New York City. The nighttime scenes offer the classic, genre-specific grain. And the only thing that pops more than Ferrara's stylized garment district creations are the reds of the frequent blood splatter and the pouty painted lips that put a cherry atop Thana's climactic sexy nun ensemble. In another great technical decision, the film's Master Audio track is presented in Mono DTS. Like its video counterpart, it offers the era-specific experience without the era-specific wear.
A fine complement of extras come with the Blu-ray, beginning with the most interesting offering: an 8-minute "interview" (more a rambling monologue in an interview setting) with Ferrara, where the director talks mostly about Tamerlis. First he praises her, then he badmouths her, and then things get creepy. Throughout his musings, positive or negative, he repeatedly mentions that Tamerlis was 17. When he starts reminiscing about her comely physical appearance, though, he states that she was 18. One final mention of her age in a non-sexual context reverts it to 17. See what I mean? Creepy.
A 10-minute interview with the film's composer, Joe Della, is interesting enough, but the 10-minute interview with creative consultant Jack McIntyre, a childhood friend of Ferrara's, offers more interesting insight into the filmmaking process.
These are followed by two very personal tributes to the late Zoë Tamerlis (who died in 1999). The first is a recollection from her widowed husband Bob Lund, accompanied by some nice photos of the late actress that dissolve in and out (sometimes too much) throughout the piece. The other is a remembrance of Tamerlis by her mother, which includes looks at the actress' childhood diaries, pictures of her youth, and recordings of piano pieces the child played—and composed—herself.
Normally, I am loathe to cite trailers as extras because I view them the way I view bread at a restaurant: it comes with the meal but that's not why we eat there. Usually. This time, even the bread is worth the visit to the restaurant. The trailers included on the disc are from Drafthouse's fantastic slate of cult film re-releases, including Ms. 45, Miami Connection, Wake in Fright, The Visitor, and Trailer War (for which I bought my own copy, immediately after seeing it.)
Also for the price of the Ms. 45 (Blu-ray), you get a downloadable digital copy of the film and an excellent, 32-page booklet chock full of essays and pictures.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film was made on the cheap—to the tune of about $60-80k ($150-200k today). There are times it shows in the production value. Also, there are a couple of glaring missteps (the most obvious where, at a party, a band is playing and the guy on the trumpet is wailing away to a music track featuring…a saxophone). These are minor quibbles given everything else that is so good about this film, but they are noticeable and will stand out to people as measurable negatives.
Ms. 45 is more than an edgy midnight screener or a cult classic. It's a seminal entry in the history of film. If you are serious about your film collection, you will make this film a part of it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Drafthouse Films
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