Everyone and no one wanted to live in New York in the 1980s. Crime had gone through the roof — but the clubs were awesome. As a kid with no money, you might have to crash in a squalid SRO, the kind of place the elderly and impoverished go to die — but if you got on the right lists, you could drink for free every night of the week. Abel Ferrara’s weirdly elegant exploitation film Ms. 45, made in 1981 and now being released, uncut and remastered, by Drafthouse Films, takes place in that New York, even though the picture refuses to fall in love with it. Instead, Ms. 45 is in love with its lead actress, a woman named Zoë Lund — it only has eyes for her, and you can see why. She’s a beauty beamed from another planet — Venus, maybe — with pillowy lips and the wide-awake, receptive eyes of a silent film star. And, by the end of the movie, the character she plays, a mute seamstress named Thana, will show up in a skimpy nun’s habit, toting a gun.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Ms. 45 was Ferrara’s third feature, made at the beginning of a career that would bring us loopy works of not-quite-genius like 1992’s Bad Lieutenant (which Lund co-wrote) and the woolly 2007 strip club frolic Go Go Tales (which Ferrara called his “first intentional comedy”). Plenty of now-established filmmakers started their careers making exploitation movies — Francis Ford Coppola and Jonathan Demme, to name just two — but Ferrara never quite made the leap to commercial filmmaking. He’s always been an outlier, an adamant oddball. Ms. 45 wasn’t well received upon its release; it wasn’t quite right for its time, probably because it was so much of its time. But it has a wild, rangy energy, like an exploding star cluster. And if the violence perpetrated by its vengeful heroine is a turn-on — that, after all, is what makes exploitation tick — Ferrara shows a great deal of tenderness for her as well. Thana may not be able to speak, but she sure knows how to make herself heard.
The movie’s early moments give some idea of the texture of Thana’s life. She works in the garment district, and because of her meek, gentle nature, she’s treated as something of a pet by the other women at her workplace, though her boss (Albert Sinkys) eyes her with cartoony lasciviousness. One evening, on her way home from work, she’s raped in an alley by a masked creep. She pulls herself together and makes it to her apartment, where she catches a burglar in the act — and he, too, rapes her. She kills him with an iron — gotta love those garment-district girls — and relieves him of his pistol, which comes in handy later when she goes off the deep end and heads out into the city to take revenge on the male sex.
The sexual politics of Ms. 45 are blunt and easy to read, and the picture is riotously cathartic. The basics are all there: the foul-mouthed men who deserve the wrath of Thana’s handy pressing tool; the schoolgirl turned vixen who slinks out into the night in search of her prey.
But it’s hard to imagine Ms. 45 with any other actress. Lund is a particularly effective avenging angel, easily making the leap from innocent mouse to worldly wise killer. She was not yet 20 years old when she made Ms. 45. By the time of her death, in 1999, she’d been not just an actress but also a model, a musician, and a screenwriter, though Ms. 45 was her true moment of glory. The terror in Thana’s eyes as she faces down each of those rapists is the standard stuff of exploitation: Seeing women suffer just comes with the territory. But Thana’s status as a victim is short-lived; the rage Lund summons sweeps it out of the way. When she stalks out into the city, dressed like a sleek, early ’80s version of Bonnie Parker, she’s a power broker in the most dangerous game, the cat-and-mouse between men and women. Thana prowls the streets, seeing all men as the enemy. That’s not a healthy way to go through life, but you can certainly see where she’s coming from, and Lund grounds the character’s madness so it’s placid and cool, as chilling as it is thrilling. Thana, it turns out, is a woman with lots to say. Her vocabulary just finds its best outlet through the barrel of a gun.