US Release Date: 05/24/1991
Susan Sarandon as Louise and Geena Davis as Thelma.
The years just keep on cruising by. This May marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Thelma & Louise. I hadn’t watched it in years and figured this was as good a time as any for a revisit. My opinion of it hasn’t changed much in two decades. It still features two amazing central performances, some hot cinematography, riveting action scenes and memorable dialogue. Questionable character motivation remains the one fault of the story.
I realize that Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Callie Khouri have to get Thelma and Louise and that iconic 66 Thunderbird to the point of no return at the edge of that cliff overlooking the Grand Canyon. But Louise’s motivations for not going to the police right from the beginning, after saving Thelma from being raped, never ring completely true.
Sure some vaguely horrific event happened to her in her past in Texas, but it is never fully explained. So their crimes just keep on escalating as they attempt to flee to Mexico from Oklahoma City without passing through Texas. It’s a bit convoluted but it gets us to that climactic moment at the Grand Canyon.
If you can get past this one fact then Thelma & Louise is a fast-paced, beautifully acted outlaw buddy movie starring women instead of men. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon were both up for Best Actress (they lost to Jodi Foster in Silence of the Lambs). Scott lost the Best Director Award to Lambs’ Jonathan Demme but Khouri did take home the prize for Original Screenplay.
As good as Sarandon is though, it is Davis as Thelma that steals the show.
Thelma undergoes the biggest change over the course of the movie. At the beginning she is a meek little put upon housewife obeying her husband as if she’s a little girl and he’s her father. By the end she has let her hair down all right. She learns what great sex is all about (courtesy of Brad Pitt in his star making role as smooth talking outlaw J.D.) and discovers she has a knack for armed robbery. She takes what she learned from J.D. - “Well, I've always believed that if done properly, armed robbery doesn't have to be an unpleasant experience.” - and puts it into practice.
My favorite moment is when they have managed to elude the police for the final time and find themselves all alone on a remote stretch of highway. Louise repeats a question she asked Thelma earlier in the movie. “How you like the vacation so far?” The irony and sarcasm cuts the tension like a knife and they both burst out laughing at the absurdity of their situation.
SPOILER ALERT: The symbolic ending is one you either love or hate. Are Thelma & Louise finally free or merely dead? It all depends on your point of view. As for me, when Thelma Dickerson nods towards the cliff and tells Louise Sawyer, “Let’s keep going.” I shed a tear every time at these women and their brave final fuck-you to the cops.
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Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise.
Although I agree that this is still a very good movie, it has more than just questionable character motivation wrong with it. In fact, the motivation could have easily been explained and didn't really bother me. First, both characters had been drinking at the time of the shooting and so weren't thinking 100% clearly. And second, one line of dialogue from Louise about how when she reported whatever happened to her in Texas she wasn't believed, would have gone a long way to explaining away why she wasn't anxious to rush to the police now, and is why, even without that line, I assumed she didn't.
The film's biggest problem is that while it features two of the screen's most fully developed female characters, it reduces the men to stereotypes and caricatures. And sure, Hollywood has been doing that to female characters since the beginning in male dominated films, but two wrongs don't make a right. From Thelma's abusive husband, to Harlan the rapist, to untrustworthy toy-boy J.D., to the cartoonish truck driver, the male characters are depicted as one note assholes. Harvey Keitel's Hal is shown as sympathetic, but we learn nothing about him. Michael Madsen's Jimmy is given some background, but even he is shown to be unreliable.
This anti-male stance also nearly derails the film's climax. Despite some nice moments of humor, the film moves toward a serious ending, but before that famous climax is reached, there is a scene with the truck driver, where Thelma and Louise blow up his truck, that is played for laughs and is meant to have you cheering the duo on for sticking it to the man. The problem is, it feels out of place. Prior to this scene there have been several moments of drama where they begin to confront the reality of their situation. Then this scene happens, which doesn't feel like reality at all. Perhaps it's meant to lighten the mood before the climax, but it should have been cut.
While it might seem as though I am harping on about the film's anti-male stance, it's really only a nagging problem and not one that ruins the movie by any means. Thelma and Louise are so wonderfully written and acted that you can't help but empathize with them, flaws and all. Rarely, before or since, has the friendship between two people been so well developed and rarer still have those friends been women. Their flaws are what make them interesting and relatable no matter what your gender.
From almost the beginning we sense that there's only one way this story can end and it won't be a happy way. The knowledge that these characters's sense of freedom will be short-lived makes it all the sweeter. Like all good road trip movies, this one is an emotional journey as well as a physical one. Both of these women go from feeling trapped in their lives to taking control of their destiny. Thelma's transformation is the most external and it's never clear if Louise has really come to terms with the demons in her past, but at least she has accepted them.
Both Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon deliver fantastic performances in the lead roles. I do agree with Patrick that Davis gets the showier role. Her naive Thelma revels in her new found freedom and she gets many of the film's funniest lines. Sarandon's Louise is more of a closed book and her performance is more low key, revealing more with her eyes and face than she does with her mouth. Perhaps most importantly, the two of them work perfectly off of each other. They share an onscreen chemistry that can't be faked.
British director Ridley Scott makes good use of the American West. The scenery is nearly a third character. The shots of these two women cruising through the majestic desert landscape in a Thunderbird convertible are iconic.
The film's famous ending has been imitated and parodied so many times that I wondered before watching whether or not it would still be able to affect me. I was almost surprised to discover that it could. By the time Thelma and Louise grasp hands and gun that engine you can't help but feel something. If you've been caught up in their story at all then you've come to know and care about these characters. It remains a classic ending even after all these years.
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Brad Pitt providing the ladies with some eye candy in Thelma and Louise
Thelma and Louis struck a chord with female audiences in a big, big way. Many women feel a fantasy fulfilled watching these two women stand up to men. This movie became part of pop culture, parodied and referenced often. Marge Simpson, taking a break from her tiresome family and relaxing in a bubble bath while watching it says everything. The popularity of Thelma and Louise says plenty about the American culture and the female psyche.
The reaction of female to male violence has not often been addressed but it has popped up. In the 1955 episode of "I Love Lucy" titled "In Palm Springs", Lucy and Ethel find an article in the newspaper about a woman married for twenty years who finally got tired of her husband’s bad habits and hit him with a baseball bat. Ricky and Fred did not see the humor in that while Lucy and Ethel laughed and thought the woman brave, just as many women find Thelma and Louise.
Two years after Thelma and Louise came out; Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband's penis as he slept. Immediately afterwards, lines were drawn in the sand, with many women defending her, stating she was the victim as she claimed he raped her before the incident. It was a grab at victim hood as her original story, according to the New York Times, was that she told police: “He always have orgasm and he doesn’t wait for me to have orgasm. He’s selfish.” Men, of course, felt just the opposite and could you even imagine a man, outside of the Muslim religion, mutilating his wife because she did not make him cum?
Thelma and Louise seemed to bring up some pent up anger many women apparently have toward men. These two women could have dealt with issues in different ways. The truck driver is obnoxious but all they had to do was yell back a few insults and he would have laughed it off and they would have all just moved on unscathed. They hate that he sexualizes them yet this movie does just that to Brad Pitt, who has my favorite line that Patrick quoted.
As Scott wrote, Thelma and Louise is very anti-male and that very much works into the film’s success. Harlan, Darryl, the truck driver and J.D. are little more than animals. Hal and Jimmy are variations of father figures. They are somewhat sympathetic to the girls but ultimately useless. The most telling scene for me is when the state trooper pulls the girls over for speeding. The officer puts on his hat and sunglasses, and swaggers up to the girl’s car with all the masculinity in the world. Then the girls turn the tables and he ends up crying like a little girl. This uniformed armed man becomes totally emasculated at their hands.
Where the movie fails, besides the long running time, is that both women, like Lorena Bobbitt, play the victim, even though they committed the crimes. Does the fact that Thelma and Louise were raped at some point and Thelma’s husband is a douche bag justify any crime they commit? Put it this way, if a man has an affair in a film he is instantly the bad guy, no matter how cold his wife. If a man commits murder we do not let it pass because someone once abused him. I am all for empowered women in films as well as real life but equality means they cannot use the the vicitm excuse anymore than men.
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Photos © Copyright MGM (1991)