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Ms. 45, 1981

Thana (Zoe Lund) is a mute seamstress working for a fashion house in New York. One day after work she is attacked and raped by a masked man in an alley. Returning home from the assault, she stumbles on a burglar who has broken into her home and he also sexually assaults her. Managing to fight off her second attacker, and subsequently armed with his .45 handgun, Thana embarks on an increasingly erratic and dangerous series of vigilante actions against the men of the city.

Rape-revenge films are such a mixed bag. Often ostensibly pro-woman or at least interested in the injustice of gender-based sexual violence, they so frequently lapse into male gaze territory or, worse, are so exploitative in their portrayal of the central crime and its repercussions as to feel more like they are serving up a kind of fantasy for a certain type of male viewer.

I was disappointed at some of the ways that Ms 45 fell into some of the more obnoxious rape-revenge tropes, and part of that disappointment comes from just how excellent the first third of the film is in terms of both the literal way that the events are portrayed to the perceptive exploration of the main character's response to her traumatizing experience.

In terms of what the movie does right, honestly there is a lot to praise. Some directors really know how to make a lower budget work, and the way that real locations and real New Yorkers are used to flesh out the setting of the film lends a realism to the story that works first to make the movie believable and then later to highlight the main character's disconnection from the world around her.

Like I said above, I thought that the first third was excellent. One thing you don't necessarily expect from a film classified as exploitation is an understanding that nudity of a sexual assault victim isn't at all necessary to portray the agony and trauma of being sexually assaulted. (This is where many rape-revenge films lose me, as too often the attractive body of the victim is shot in a way that can't help but feel leering or voyeuristic, making the audience complicit in the exploitation of the person being victimized). Further, I really liked the portrayal of Thana's increased sensitivity and her lingering trauma. Her boss ripping a shirt off of a female dress form sends Thana into a kind of stupor. In maybe my favorite moment of reflection on the psychological effects of her attack, there's a part where she begins to undress in front of the bathroom mirror, only for the opening of her shirt to cause her to hallucinate her first attacker standing behind her and trying to grope her. It's such an excellent portrayal of the way that being sexually assaulted can make a person feel like they don't even have ownership over their own body anymore because it has become a sort of crime scene.

I also really enjoyed the first stage of Thana's vigilante killings. Specifically, I love her "shoot first, ask questions, well, never" approach. While I'm going to say things later in this review that are critical of the film on this very point, this first half of the film acknowledges that a woman who has been repeatedly victimized by strange men would NO WAY let a guy get her alone and vulnerable. I loved that she didn't even get out of the elevator to nail the photographer dude. And at this point in the film, such a great job has been done to establish just how unrelenting the sexual harassment is of the main character that we don't need "proof" that these dudes are sleazy. We don't need to say "But how do we know the photographer was going to try something?". Dude, c'mon.

I would additionally praise, on the whole, the color scheme of the film and the outfits worn by the main character. Given the excellent grunge of the city, the polished fashion (NOT the sherbet resort wear though *shudder*) is a neat pop of color and style and clean lines.

Okay, so then the second half. Slight sigh of disappointment.

It does maintain some of the really successful elements of the first half. The clothing and visuals are still very much on point. And the use of snippets of conversation to establish this world as very hostile to women (ie the guy who promised his wife to get a vasectomy and then just decided not to, or the dudes trading tips about buying imported sex workers in Mexico) continue to be effective.

But it is a truth universally acknowledged that wherever there is a film about a woman getting revenge for a rape, one must eventually put her in a ridiculously sexy outfit and have her seduce a potential (or established!) sexual predator. Just . . . no. Nope. I think that this temptation cannot be resisted for several reasons. The first is that pretty much any movie with an attractive lead--and especially a thriller or horror film--just can't avoid showing off the body of its lead. (I do give this film kudos, as I said before, for NOT doing this in the sequences of actual sexual assault). But more basically I think that it comes from this idea of films being "clever" because a woman was assaulted for sex but now she's using sex as a weapon. Get it?!?!?!?! The thing that she was victimized for has now become her power! The hunted has become the hunter! *filmmaker pats self on back, orders sexy garters for rape victim character*

Now, the climactic sequence at the Halloween party is rife with amazing imagery. It is at once horrifying and darkly comic, and the time spent establishing the characters of Thana's co-workers really pays off. But from a character point of view, I'll admit that it turned into a big disconnect for me. There is something in the final showdown that I appreciate in the sense that rather than Thana finding the man who originally assaulted her, she ends up targeting someone who has probably been a source of on-going harassment for a long time. But still it doesn't quite work for me. Is this meant to be Thana reclaiming her sexuality? Is she deliberately enticing her boss to justify targeting him (something she hasn't done for the entire rest of the film)? Everything else leading up to the final sequence had an emotional logic for me, but sexy nun outfit rang exactly zero bells. It feels like pandering to the audience (something backed up by the racy cover to the film), and I was disappointed that it seemed to step away from what had been a really neat character study.

I had really built this up in my head as something I'd find upsetting. And while it is upsetting, I think that it is far more thoughtful and empathetic that I'd expected, and the first half is particularly strong in avoiding a lot of the more eye-roll-inducing tropes of the genre. I wish that it had stayed more true to that insight and empathy, though I can't say I don't get why it chose the direction it did for the final act.