4.5 out of 5 stars

Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Callie Khouri’s Thelma & Louise has a reputation, one it gained soon after its 1991 release, of being a kind of Bonnie & Bonnie, in which two oppressed women who’ve finally had enough embark on a rampage, releasing their frustrations in violence against a succession of dreadful men. Time Magazine, putting the film on its front cover, promised to reveal ‘Why Thelma & Louise Strikes A Nerve.’

But the reality of the movie is more subtle. Yes, the eponymous duo commit crimes, but when Thelma (Geena Davis) holds up a store it’s born of necessity and nobody gets hurt, and when Louise (Susan Sarandon) shoots the vile Harlan (Timothy Carhart) it’s emotionally understandable if not legally justifiable. Their other crimes (blowing up a fuel tanker, locking a cop in his trunk) are essentially pranks; certainly serious offences if they’d happened in real life, but played for fantasy-comedic value in the movie. It’s also notable that neither of those incidents has any significance in the broader plot, as they exist for fun and the sheer joy of showing women getting their own back on men. It’s difficult to believe we’re supposed to factor them into a serious moral calculus as things that “actually happen”, despite the (possibly feigned) outrage of those who took the film that way.

Arguably, the whole damn-the-consequences aspect of Thelma & Louise should be seen as something of a fantasy—not in the sense that anything in it’s impossible, but in the sense it doesn’t really matter whether or not it’s credible. What’s important is simply that it’s done here with women rather than the men audiences would have expected to occupy such roles in the early-1990s. Where Thelma & Louise—which, incidentally, has aged extremely well—is most thoughtfully powerful isn’t in the escapades it depicts, but in its portrayal of people (as opposed to events), and not only the titular pair but also the men with whom they intersect. Again, contrary to its reputation, the men in Thelma & Louise are not all monsters (even if male-driven vehicles are so often shown as physically threatening to Louise’s T-Bird), and it’s the way that men’s relationships with the outlaws, as well as the women themselves, are so carefully depicted that makes the film so much more than a romp.

Set over a few days, Thelma & Louise begins in Arkansas, where Louise is a diner waitress and her younger friend Thelma is a housewife married to Darryl (Christopher McDonald), a man for whom the phrase “male chauvinist pig” might have been invented, as he’s arrogant and sexist to the bone. Hoping for a brief escape from drudgery, the two women plan a weekend trip to the mountains. En route they stop at a bar (it’s maybe an interesting reflection of the film’s period that the issue of Louise stopping for a couple of drinks mid-drive isn’t even mentioned) and it’s here things go abruptly and terribly wrong. Another patron, Harlan, fixes his attentions on the rather naive Thelma, and when she resists his advances he sexually assaults her in the parking lot.

Louise interrupts, and shoots him–but only after he’s let Thelma go, and this is the turning point of the film. Not only does it provide an early clue to a major trauma in Louise’s own background, it also asserts that the duo are agents of the narrative rather than passive objects, while introducing a level of moral complexity (from hereon, we’re rooting for a murderer), and in practical terms it means they’re now on the run from the law.

The cross-country journey which follows—eventually they’ll try to reach safety in Mexico—is episodic, with Louise’s musician boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen) agreeing to help them at one point, and a brief new romantic interest for Thelma in the lean, seductive shape of J.D (Brad Pitt) appearing at much the same time. If these two represent the opposite pulls of their old lives and their open futures, it’s the persistent presence in the film of another man, state policeman Slocumb (Harvey Keitel), that reminds us of the reality: Thelma and Louise can never go back, and they may not be able to go very far forward either. Although they don’t meet Slocumb physically until the final’s climax, he becomes perhaps the most important character in Thelma & Louise after the two lead roles, symbolic both of the unstoppable threat the law poses and also the remote hope that maybe things could turn out okay.

While their odyssey across the desert might feel like a picaresque series of random incidents, Thelma & Louise is carefully and intricately plotted by screenwriter Khouri, an impressive accomplishment for her first feature film which won her numerous awards including an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. (She later became a director too.) Still, it’s the performances that primarily bring the film alive, especially Sarandon’s Louise: in the rape scene alone, for example, her face says so much, broadcasting anger and fear and then—as her expression trembles slightly—hinting that she, too, has direct experience of this abuse.

Louise is worldlier and wiser than Davis’s Thelma, but if she’s the more assertive one it’s Thelma who undergoes the bigger character transformation. Seemingly isolated from the world since her teenage marriage (“I’ve never been out of town without Darryl”), Thelma blossoms not only into the freer spirit that you’d expect, but also into a confident criminal. “You’re usually so sedate,” Louise tells her. “I’ve had it up to my ass with sedate,” responds Thelma.

Both richly deserved their Oscar nominations, although they lost to another woman playing a role more conventionally given to men: Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs. (Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer had been early choices for the title roles in Thelma & Louise, too, along with William Baldwin for the Pitt part, but it’s difficult to imagine any alternative casting working better than the one Scott ended up with. In particular, would Foster have been too strong a personality, and too difficult to accept as a woman beaten down by life?) 

The pair’s self-actualisation, not so much through criminality itself as through being able to set their own destination for perhaps the first time in their lives, is where the feminist power of Thelma & Louise lies. More than any physical revenge on men. As Khouri said:

Through a series of accidents, they… go from being invisible to being too big for their world to contain, because they’d stopped cooperating with things that were absolutely preposterous, and just became themselves.

But despite the familiar use of a road trip as a metaphor for self-discovery, despite the film’s many buddy-movie moments, and despite two very obvious nods to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) in the monochrome-to-colour opening and the freeze-frame at the end, Thelma & Louise isn’t only about Thelma and Louise. Its male characters are carefully thought out, giving short shrift to the notion they’re merely a rogues’ gallery of unmitigated sexism, and each of them sheds a slightly different light on the two central women.

The lowest rung on the evolutionary ladder is, of course, occupied by the rapist Harlan, a character without redeeming features. Slightly up from him comes Marco St. John as the truck driver, who harasses the pair with obscene gestures from his cab and ends up being stranded by them in the desert. He’sis as unlikeable as Harlan, but played parodically. So is Darryl, Thelma’s ludicrously insensitive husband. All these three represent the darker side of men’s behaviour toward women, of course to different degrees, but things become much more complex with Pitt’s J.D.

His kindness toward Thelma seems genuine in some ways, but he also has ulterior motives. When he describes how he stakes out a store to rob, he could be describing how he’s setting her up; and yet he also, even in robbing her, leaves her with an unexpected legacy by inspiring her own successful robbery. He’s also, interestingly, the only male character in the movie who actually ends up better off by the end than he was when we first meet him. Does J.D deserve this narrative generosity because, like the two women, he’s also outside the law? He’s manipulative but not institutionally so, and while he takes advantage of Thelma, he does so in a perversely honest way. J.D, which brought Pitt to wide attention as an actor, remains one of the most memorable characters in Thelma & Louise precisely because he’s much harder than the “worse” men to pigeonhole.

The overtly “good” men, meanwhile, are represented by Madsen as Louise’s boyfriend and Keitel’s cop Slocumb. Louie’s not without temper and jealousy, but (unlike the idealistic Thelma with her too-good-to-be-true J.D) Louise is mature enough to see there’s a decent guy beneath. Slocumb, in his way, is almost as memorable as J.D and just as hard to read, with Keitel often giving the impression of a man for whom affability is a duty and deep seriousness is more comfortable. Without doubt, he understands the pair and their dilemmas (both legal and personal) better than anyone else who meets them—with the possible exception of J.D. But surely his loyalties ultimately lie with the law, and how far would he really go to protect the two women from its worst retribution? Whether you see Keitel’s inability to save them as a tragic element in the film—the thwarting of one of the few really decent men in their lives—or as confirmation that women are on their own in a men’s world, may be a litmus test of the assumptions you bring to Thelma & Louise.

Given the potency of the women’s situation and the strong characters populating it, director Scott wisely keeps his contribution un-showy, making the most of contrasting settings (the wide-open deserts of the western US, the busy diner, the sweat-soaked bar) and often adding to Thelma & Louise’s thick streak of humour with bizarre little touches like a horse outside a restaurant, a tractor reversing through the frame, or (most of all) a guy lifting dumbbells in the background at a gas station. Thelma & Louise has sometimes been thought of as an atypical project for a director largely associated with blockbuster epics, action movies, and science-fiction, but of course he’d already brought a formidable feminist protagonist to the screen (Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in 1979’s Alien), and would do so again in 1997 with the less celebrated G.I. Jane starring Demi Moore.

Hans Zimmer’s score is equally unobtrusive, even if the choice of soundtrack songs can sometimes be heavy-handed. For example, Marianne Faithfull’s “Ballad of Lucy Jordan” popping up the moment Thelma says she always wanted to travel. And certainly, there’s hardly a wrong note played anywhere in Thelma & Louise. As Variety, in its characteristic shorthand style, summarised the film, “even those who don’t rally to pic’s fed-up feminist outcry will take to its comedy, momentum and dazzling visuals.”

But it belongs to the cast, especially Sarandon and Davis, as well as Khouri. It’s they who give life to the concept, and lift Thelma & Louise far above the reductive descriptions like “buddy outlaw movie with women” that it still sometimes attracts. The script itself doesn’t delve into the characters to any great depth, but it offers plenty of scope for the actors to do so, and their performances in the five most important roles (Thelma, Louise, J.D, Slocumb, Jimmy) are all so well-developed that they fill the screen.

Add in a visual style that’s always interesting (without intruding on the characters), plenty of unforced humour, and several thought-provoking questions that are never over-explored but allowed to resonate with the viewer, and you have a modern classic that’s likely to remain one for many years to come. A film which triumphs, too, in turning objective tragedy into personal victory.

USA | 1991 | 129 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Ridley Scott.
writer: Callie Khouri.
starring: Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald,Stephen Tobolowsky, Timothy Carhart, Jason Beghe, Lucinda Jenney & Marco St. John.