SOMEBODY SAID GET A LIFE… SO THEY DID.
Callie Khouri, who had written the screenplay for ”Thelma & Louise” in 1988, wasn’t entirely sure that Ridley Scott was the right person to make the movie. After all, this was a guy whose films to a large share were about men and had masculine themes. And he was British. But when they met, Khouri became convinced that he had the right attitude to her story and that he understood the Southern sentiment that’s part of it. The final result was hailed by most critics and 25 years on we consider it a classic. But its feminist message did receive a backlash at the time.
Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer (Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon) need a break and have decided on a two-day vacation together. Louise’s boyfriend (Michael Madsen) is out on the roads most of the time anyway, and Thelma just doesn’t tell her controlling husband (Christopher McDonald) that she’s leaving. The two friends drive off in Louise’s 1966 Thunderbird and the trip is initially a success. They stop at a roadhouse for a drink or two and Thelma starts dancing with a man (Timothy Carhart).
After too many drinks though, he helps Thelma outside for a while, and tries to rape her in the parking lot. He’s stopped by Louise who carries a gun. As the two women begin to leave, a final insult from the man makes Louise pull the trigger…
Never losing sympathy
There’s a dark background story explaining why Louise would kill that man, but the rest of the movie doesn’t linger on it. We understand what causes this crime to take place, we don’t lose sympathy with the two women who suddenly find themselves on the run from the law, and we accept the build-up that leads to that iconic ending at the Grand Canyon. It is a road movie, and some might call it a modern-day Western where the ending is reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
Khouri has said in interviews that she never intended for it to be expressly feminist, but there’s no reason to be shy about it. The movie caused a debate where its critics wanted to see a greater nuance in the portrait of men – every guy here is complete scum, or unreliable, or simply ineffectual. This criticism irritated Khouri since there has traditionally been fewer meaty roles for actresses, a fact that has rarely caused complaints in the past. Besides, the males in Thelma & Louise are far from uninteresting. McDonald is hilarious as Thelma’s useless, dumb husband; Keitel’s cop stands out as the only decent man in the movie; and then there’s Brad Pitt. Young and largely unknown at the time, Pitt is amusing and very sexy as a bank robber who enters the fugitives’ lives for a short while.
There are times when Khouri and Scott struggle with a basically rather thin and predictable story, but the film is frequently engrossing thanks to its superior ingredients. There’s tension and humor. The songs of the soundtrack, as well as Hans Zimmer’s score, elegantly steer our emotions; there’s a touching scene near the end that makes brilliant use of Marianne Faithfull’s ”The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”. Cinematographer Adrian Biddle captures a sense of freedom in his shots from Utah and California that every road movie needs.
Sarandon and Davis had successful careers before this film; the latter had even won an Oscar two years earlier. Still, Thelma & Louise became a milestone for them both. Some of the scenes where the love between them, and sheer determination that propels them, shine through are so forceful. Everybody involved keeps saying that they never intended to make a statement. But this movie is nevertheless one hell of a statement.
Thelma & Louise 1991-U.S. 128 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Ridley Scott, Mimi Polk Gitlin. Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay: Callie Khouri. Cinematography: Adrian Biddle. Music: Hans Zimmer. Song: ”Part of Me, Part of You” (performed by Glenn Frey). Cast: Susan Sarandon (Louise Sawyer), Geena Davis (Thelma Dickinson), Harvey Keitel (Hal Slocumb), Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald, Stephen Tobolowski… Brad Pitt.
Oscar: Best Original Screenplay. Golden Globe: Best Screenplay.
Last word: “I didn’t want to write about two stupid women, or two evil women who go on a crime spree. I wanted to write about two normal women. The definition of women as presented in films and plays is so narrow, so limiting. I noticed that when I was acting: How many times did I play a prostitute? Dramatically, it seems one out of every four women is a prostitute. Where are the real people? Where are people that aren’t prostitutes, who aren’t selling themselves for sex? I wanted to write something with strong women in it. I wanted to write something that, had I been an actress and read the script, I would have thought, I’ve gotta do this role or I’m gonna kill myself.” (Khouri, Syd Field)