I finally watched Thelma & Louise for the first time. 21 years after it was released. Aside from the fact that I was too young to watch and really get it in 1991, it was also a bizarre case of too much awareness that led to my not watching the film at all until this week. It made regular appearances in pop culture as I grew up and having got the gist of it and a strong sense of what it was about, I didn’t really feel the need to watch the source of all this discussion. It was a chance encounter with a Vanity Fair article detailing the making of the film that led to my finally watching it this week.
I did not want to let all the rhetoric about how women are portrayed in film factor into my experience. I shouldn’t have worried – about five minutes into the film I was completely engrossed and all analysis went out the window. In the hands of writer Callie Khouri, director Ridley Scott and actresses Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer came alive as two ordinary women going about their lives as best they could. Susan Sarandon’s quiet, no-fuss, rock-steady Louise had a dry sense of humour that only comes from having a few battle scars from a difficult past. Geena Davis’s Thelma was a revelation – radiant with an easy smile and a spirit that wasn’t crushed despite early marriage to the jackass who was her first boyfriend. The innocent and enthusiastic teenager she must have been came back into play the moment she got into the car with her friend. Just two women looking for a small break from routine, driving along until things go horribly terribly wrong.
This is the other thing – the incident that changes everything – the big turning point from which there is no looking back, is so messy and the opposite of the tied-in-a-bow writing that movies offer these days, it messed with my head for the rest of the film. Yes, Thelma was being abused by Harlan, the stranger they met at a bar, but Louise got there in time and words were enough to stop him. They could have driven off, shaken, bruised but largely unharmed, had Louise not risen to the bait that Harlan so insolently offered. The bullet she fired was propelled by a momentary loss of control in what appeared to be an otherwise careful, logical woman. Louise shot Harlan when she needn’t have. Why did she do it? Was it pent-up anger from years of holding it back? Did his words trigger her feelings about a past experience that is hinted at later? Who knows? It took a split second for her to lose control and everything came undone.
Just when it seemed messy enough, they go ahead and muddy things up more. You think, ‘Ok this is bad, but he was violating Thelma and they could go to the police and solve this mess.’ And that’s when you get slapped in the face again – Louise’s defeated explanation for why they can’t get help is the reasoning that a person very aware of reality applies. This is not an ideal-world scenario, this is a real world scenario. No one would believe that Thelma, who had been dancing with Harlan all evening, didn’t want to have sex with him later that night. There were a hundred witnesses and Thelma’s innocent desire to let loose just a little is the kind of thing that people roll their eyes at when asked to make a judgment about human nature.
Thelma’s behavior at the bar was fueled by extreme enthusiasm and a desire to get a headstart on their weekend of fun. This to me made the film feel dated, not as compared to life today, but in terms of the movies of today. It was the complete lack of entitlement and the absence of the “I’m a woman, this is my body and my life” tirade that is now commonplace, no fist-pumping, no talk of empowerment and independence. Just an ice-cold realization that they were in over their heads and the consequences would depend on how people actually think and act, not how they should ideally think and act. Thelma should have the right to say ‘no’, her and Louise should be able to demand justice for punishing a rapist pig. But would they get the chance? They could have come back and found out. Of course they deserved to get justice, but just the fact that they didn’t demand it based on the notion that they deserve it, make Thelma and Louise very unique women.
Female bonding in the movies is deathly boring. All they do is talk about men, or go to a spa, or share clothes. Thankfully, there are no scenes dedicated to the women bonding in this film. They don’t talk, they act. Like humans. Louise saves Thelma but doesn’t hold back when it comes to blaming her for the mess they’re in. Thelma flakes out and makes it very easy for the super hot J.D. to steal the only money they have and when she realises Louise is coming apart, she tries to make things better. She makes a bigger mess, but in that moment she’s done the best she can.
While the women have the most amount of screen time in the film, the male characters are all given an opportunity to make an impact and they do. Christopher McDonald (Requiem For A Dream) is pitch perfect as Thelma’s bully of a husband. He is so selfish and ridiculous he interrupts himself while rebuking Thelma over the phone just so he can focus on a key moment of a football match he’s watching. Harvey Keitel plays Inspector Slocumb as a gentleman, patient and watchful, and ready to help the women within the limits of the law. I’ve become a fan of character actor Stephen Tobolowsky over the last year as a result of his excellent SlashFilm.com podcast, The Tobolowsky Files, so it was great to see a much younger-him as Slocumb’s colleague Max. Michael Madsen is very easy on the eyes as Louise’s devoted boyfriend Jimmy and a very young Brad Pitt as the smooth-talking J.D. is a delight. This may be one of his best performances ever.
According to the stories detailed in the Vanity Fair article, that this movie ever got made is a miracle. There was great perseverance on the part of a lot of people involved in the film – Khouri in trying to get the script read, Davis in pursuing the part even after Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster were already cast (it took too long and they moved on to other projects), Scott in trying to find a director and eventually taking on the reins himself. 21 years later, the movie remains relevant and is a pleasure to watch.
As for the much-talked about ending of the film, Khouri has said in interviews that she intended it to be more metaphorical than literal. You never see the car crash or explode in a ball of fire, you don’t see Thelma and Louise die, all you see is the car in a freeze frame – they’ve escaped the world and are flying high. Make what you will of it.
The Ride of a Lifetime: Vanity Fair