Thelma & Louise (1991) / Drama-Action
MPAA Rated: R for strong language, some violence and sensuality
Running Time: 129 min.
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Brad Pitt, Christopher McDonald, Stephen Tobolowsky, Timothy Carhart, Charlie Sexton (cameo)
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Callie Khouri
Review published March 8, 2007
Thelma Dickinson (Davis, Quick Change) and Louise Sawyer (Sarandon, White Palace) are two Arkansas women stuck in stagnant relationships, who decide to finally do something fun for themselves when they go on a two-day fishing trip, or so the plan was. While at a bar, Thelma gets a little tipsy while dancing with a local womanizer, and as he proceeds to try to have his way with her in the parking lot, things get rough, until Louise pulls out a gun and saves Thelma from certain rape. After being insulted, Louise fires a bullet into the man's chest, killing him instantly, and the two go immediately on the lam, knowing that justice would not prevail for them in the hands of the authorities. Their plan is to head to Mexico, but the police and FBI are in pursuit, and the road is a dangerous place -- for the macho men they encounter along the way.
One could rightfully call this a modern feminist version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, from its two bantering protagonists, one bright but impulsive and the other daft but loyal, to the freeze-frame ending that never quite shows us the ultimate fate of the duo we've grown to admire. It's essentially a road movie, but to call it that would seem too limiting for the thematic scope of Callie Khouri's (Something to Talk About, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) Academy Award-winning screenplay. Think of it not as a road picture, but more of an odyssey -- a liberation and transformation of two women who've been manipulated by men all their lives to the point where they don't even have much of a life to brag about. It's a tale of self-discovery and the freedom that comes through autonomy, although the price of such freedom eventually must come at a heavy cost.
It's not surprising that veteran director Ridley Scott (Black Rain, Blade Runner) would make a fine film, as he has made his share of genre classics. What is surprising is how subdued the film is in terms of his trademark visual flourishes. Gone are the smoke-filled rooms, the empty atmosphere, the emotionally-constipated hero, and the sweeping shots of industrial structures. Scott has made great films using these techniques, but the best move he makes on Thelma & Louise is to remove the aloofness generally associated with his style, allowing us to get to know the two women at the heart of the film. Their pain, their happiness, their moral dilemmas -- it shows on their faces at all times, as we feel a kinship with them, though their actions, as heinous as they might seem from a legal and moral standpoint, still imbue us with a certain admiration, and even our applause. In many ways, they're doing what we all secretly wish we could do to the users, abusers, and lowlifes of the world.
Of course, the film also wouldn't work without proper casting, and though other actresses had been approached to play the titular women, it's difficult to imagine any others displaying a better mix of emotion, vulnerability, and drive to be themselves than Sarandon and Davis. Although never fully explained, most of the action sets off from a secret that Louise harbors regarding a possible experience dealing with rape in the past, and the lack of sympathy or understanding on the part of the legal system that, one presumes, did not do justice in her case. Although Thelma is reluctant to go along at first, she awakens to the realization that the life she has made for herself is nothing to go back to; she'd rather take her chances in Mexico (or even possibly in jail) than be stuck in the hell of an existence with a domineering, possibly philandering husband. Once that taste of liberation has been experienced, there's just no way to go back.
Although Thelma & Louise has garnered accolades and acclaim, I feel the need to mention that it tends to strike certain demographics harder than others, which many works with a perceived political bent tend to do. I've read other critics who've slammed the film because it has a feminist angle, as if stories need to be found agreeable to the receiver of it in order to be deemed worthwhile. I maintain that you don't need to like the women or their actions to gain an appreciation of the story as a challenging work that says something about basic human conditions that merit exploring. Their home lives aren't "worst case scenario" at all; women live under the notion of subservience to the whims of their significant others, especially in small towns like those found in Arkansas, where their opinions don't matter, and their personal interests are never fully explored. It's not an assertion that being a woman is better than being a man, it's that finding your own self is better than a life of being taken for granted and shut out from a pursuit of potential happiness and fulfillment.
It's not without weaknesses (there's a scene with a harassing trucker that ends with the women getting comeuppance just plain awkward, and the police chase at the end, complete with cars flipping over, would feel more at home in a Burt Reynolds flick than in a film that explores such deep themes), but its strengths more than make up for the overindulgences. Thelma & Louise is funnier than most comedies, more moving than most dramas, and more electrifying than most action films, period. You may not agree with some of the themes, and you may find the descent into ugliness to not be your cup of tea, but it will make you think, and to feel, and to reflect on what you saw, and to wonder why it rubs at that sore spot that other films are too timid ever to touch. Making you feel uncomfortable shouldn't be the benchmark by which you slam a film; it's a film that makes you feel nothing at all that is the one to avoid. Love it or hate it, at least it provokes a response in all who see it -- as Thelma would say, "I've had it up to my ass with sedate."
©2007 Vince Leo