Critics (and audiences) love to place movies under neat little compartmentalized labels, and 1991’s Thelma & Louise has been described as many things, most of which boil down to “a feminist version of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid.” While that’s probably a fair summarization, this movie is much more than a roadtrip between girlfriends, buddy comedy, or tale of a crime spree gone wild. Instead, director Ridley Scott combines his usual tools of the trade — breathtaking cinematography and effective score — with Calli Khouri’s debut (and Oscar-winning) script that carries strong undercurrents of social realism. To be certain, Khouri did not arbitrarily choose the surnames of Louise Sawyer and Thelma Dickinson, who are both mythical within this depiction of contemporary Americana, but these two characters aren’t merely one-dimensional pieces of talking scenery either. At first glance, however, one would be forgiven for assuming as much, since the script wastes no time with lengthy introductions. Instead, we meet up with on-the-job waitress Louise (Susan Sarandon) phoning her friend, Thelma (Geena Davis), in anticipation of their upcoming girls’ mini-break weekend: “Hey, how you doing, little housewife? Ya all packed? We’re outta here to-night!” In a telling gesture, timid Thelma cannot even ask her husband, Darryl (Christopher McDonald), whether she can go on the trip. Instead, she just leaves his dinner in the microwave and, as an afterthought, grabs the household gun — just in case.
Just in case.
From the scene of the girls’ first crime, a honky-tonk bar in “Deep Shit, Arkansas,” the story follows the women through Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona on their journey to Mexico. As it happens, Thelma and Louise never do reach their intended destination, and before the end, they’re wanted for murder, armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, false imprisonment, and destruction of property. Throughout it all, these two women enjoy one hell of a ride, which brands them as fugitives but, oddly enough, allows certain freedoms from the routine of everyday life for the streetwise, cynical Louise and guileless, goofy Thelma. When these women finally get a chance to let their hair down, Thelma locates her inner vigilante and Louise shows a bit of vulnerability when clues are revealed about a past trauma, which explains her extreme measures when Thelma is quite nearly raped by Harlan (Timothy Carhart). To be certain, these two women find themselves within desperate circumstances and force themselves to confront the reality that that law will never be on their side.
While the movie’s two leading ladies are flawless in their portrayals, it would be a shame to not notice that the other players are no less compelling. So while it’s quite easy to forget everything in the face of Brad Pitt’s washboard abs and rock-hard nipples, many of the other supporting actors (in particular, Harvey Keitel and Michael Madsen) give amazing performances that defy anyone who’d label this movie as an “anti-male” piece of propaganda. When Louise receives a visit from Jimmy (Madsen), a traveling musician with an ambiguously-drawn nature, it becomes quite apparent that Jimmy is an honorable man and loves Louise dearly. Clearly, he cares enough to fetch her life savings and fly across two states to propose marriage, but the script also gives some indication that he’s got a bit of a violent temper. And while Louise loves Jimmy (proving that these are not women who hate men), she cares about him enough to send him packing, just so that she can guarantee that he’ll not be made “more of an accessory than he already is” by his own volition.
While observing the women’s escapades, Keitel’s hardened cop (Hal) soon realizes that the ladies have merely done what they had to do within a series of shitty circumstances. Towards the beginning, Darryl calls the cops after demanding over the phone that Louise come home. Of course, Darryl doesn’t give a shit about his wife’s safety (he pays more attention to the football game on television) and just wants her back like he’d want a rightful possession returned. When Hal informs Darryl that the FBI’s tapping his phone, he actually wants to know whether they’re gonna charge him for that service. Then, there’s an interesting bit of dialogue between Hal, Max (Stephen Toblowsky), and Darryl:
Hal: “I don’t want to get to personal, but do you have a good relationship with your wife?”
Darryl: (raises finger indignantly) “I… I love Thelma.”
Hal: “I don’t intend anything by that, sir. Just a question I have to ask. Are you close with her?”
Darryl: “Yeah, I guess. I mean, I’m about as close as I can be to a nutcase like that.”
Hal: (Laughs, patently playing along with Darryl.)
Max: “Yeah, well. If she calls, just be gentle. You know, like you’re really happy to hear from her. (Darryl rolls his eyes.) Like you really miss her. Women love that shit.”
Darryl: (Laughing uncomfortably) “Okay… if you say so. Women love that shit!”
It’s rather obvious why Thelma could never return to that nonsense, but she’s busily screwing up the smoothly planned getaway through a series of antics with a drifter named J.D. (Pitt), who steals all of their money. At that point, a pivotal switch occurs between the two women with Thelma taking charge, much to the surprise of Louise, who enters a near-catatonic state. When Thelma borrows J.D.’s armed-robbery method of operation, Hal figures out the real deal and confronts J.D. in an interrogation room: “Do you think Thelma Dickinson would have committed armed robbery if you hadn’t taken all their money?” Naturally, J.D. attempts to deny that he took the money, so Hal starts smacking him with the cowboy hat. “There’s two girls out there that had a chance. They had a chance. But now you’ve screwed it up for them. And now they’re in some serious trouble. And I’m gonna hold you personally responsible for at least part of it if anything happens to them.” Now that’s a dedicated detective, folks.
Before too long, the girls have added a few more offenses to their criminal roster. A state trooper (Jason Beghe) ends up in his trunk, and Thelma and Louise give a little something to that horribly lewd truck driver with the suggestively wagging tongue. Soon, it’s obvious that the women won’t make it to Mexico and shall meet a tragic end. As they stubbornly refuse to give themselves up, Hal begs Max to call off the guns: “How many times those women gotta be fucked over?!?” After Max insists that these are necessary measures and it becomes clear that the women have chosen not to surrender and, instead, will drive over the edge of the Grand Canyon, Hal makes a vain effort to run after their vehicle. Unfortunately, even if Hal had succeeded in saving the lives of Thelma and Louise, these women would have been completely screwed for life, for even the most sympathetic detective has absolutely no discretion upon their ultimate fate at the hands of the courts. It’s a difficult truth to confront, but a significant percentage of rapists really do get away with everything but murder.
Thelma & Louise is a movie well worth revisiting for its iconic characters, sharp script, and cinematography that builds towards the climactic ending with an amazing intensity — from twin curls of smoke rising from the semi-truck explosion to a high-speed chase that shows 11 police cars in hot pursuit as the women’s car blazes through the desert. Unfortunately, the movie as a whole just doesn’t play terribly well when edited for television (“Clean my clock!” doesn’t carry the same impact as “Suck my cock!”), so catch this one on Netflix Instant Watch. As a final note, it’s awfully damn refreshing to travel back to a time when actresses were allowed to show off their wrinkles, which virtually guarantees that Hollywood won’t issue a remake to ruin this original.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.