Thelma and Louise: The ultimate road movie, feminist revenge flick, 128 minutes of vicious male-bashing, the one where Brad Pitt is stoopid sexy, a punk-rock Western — however you think of this iconic 1991 film from Oscar-winner Callie Khouri and director Ridley Scott starring Geena Davis as the fun-loving Thelma, and Susan Sarandon as the no-nonsense Louise on a road trip to "freedom," chances are, you have definitely thought of it. I thought of it again because it was just added to Netflix streaming, and upon re-watching, I saw a world of new things I'd forgotten.
Thelma and Louise is fucked-up and brilliant.
One of the most skillful things about this film is the way it manages to have such fun with the road trip genre —there are radio sing-alongs, drinks, a line-dancing sequence, excellent sunglasses, windblown road hair, hilarious witticisms, sweet '90s denim, a hardcore paean to female friendship — while still offering a fucked-up, scathing, serious movie about rape and trauma and loss and the crime of living in the world female. Even if it pulls a Trojan horse by packaging it through a fun premise — check out the original trailer — it still embodies the very real challenges women face trying to be free. Issues that we are still debating today and it's been over 20 years since its debut.
The tension between men and women is pitch perfect.
There is the world of men in the film — restless, driven, and autonomous — and the world of women — tenuous, fraught, limited. And the symbolic bridge between them is Harvey Keitel's Hal Slocumbe, a character who in many ways embodies a kind of moral, harmonious blend of both sexes. Whereas the men in this film are very much "men" and the women are very much "women," heteronormative quotes on purpose, Slocumbe is tough and shit-talking, still kinda looks like a 1970s detective, but is deeply compassionate and intuitive about these women's plights.
The women are flawed and complex and also "strong."
In the debate about why there aren't more "strong female characters," in film, some folks have argued that requiring all the female characters to be strong is its own kind of limitation. We should want, they argue, complex female characters who may or may not be strong but, as Neil Gaiman put it, "strongly written." Done and done here. Thelma may be a longsuffering housewife, but she's no wallflower. Louise is a tough-as-nails waitress with trust issues, but she has to confront her past and reconcile it before the clock runs out. They both may be doomed in the film in terms of the "freedom" they seek, but there is no question they choose their fate.
It's not a male-bashing film.
It's an honest film about some universal aspects of being female. Thelma is ditching on a controlling, egotistical asshole. Louise is wary of the intentions of her commitment-averse boyfriend who only seems interested when she's unavailable. There are casual and overt ways men are portrayed as assholes, sure — the sexist pig truck driver, the FBI agents casually flipping through porn as they track their targets, and some of them get a much-deserved comeuppance. But it's a fair portrayal of some of the ways women experience men in the world, from catcalls and seductions-turned-ugly, to moving heart-to-hearts about the nature of love from guys who really care. And still, it speaks to women's experience while also presenting a wide range of realistic types of men —some are good, some are bad, some are both — than most movies with women in them can assert. So it's no surprise that it made execs uneasy:
"It's two bitches in a car. I don't get it!" was the response director Ridley Scott heard from more than one studio executive while he shopped Thelma & Louise around as he looked for financing. First-time screenwriter Callie Khouri's tale of modern-day outlaws speeding through the American Southwest packed a potent mix of buddy-movie conventions and action clichés that managed to evoke both the mythology of the Western and a hint of contemporary feminist ideology. "It made executives nervous," Scott says in an interview on this Blu-ray edition.
Another anecdote from the film's casting sessions from a great Vanity Fair piece about the making of the film:
'…a particular director—a huge movie director today, who will go nameless—said, 'I want more girls with bigger tits, Callie! And less clothes!'
It celebrates a working-class feminism.
Though their arcs are different — Louise has to learn to trust the men in her life more and confront her past, while Thelma has to be a little less trusting and grow some agency — they both offer the kind of world-weary, headstrong but practical feminism that often comes with less education, less choice. These women want men in their lives, but their lack of lucrative careers and greater autonomy means fewer prospects all around. The freedom they seek from the drudgery of their existence is always temporary — until the end.
Everyone in the movie is perfectly cast/named.
Though Khouri originally wanted Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand for the lead parts, I can't imagine anyone but Susan Sarandon, incredible as the orderly Louise with a past she won't discuss, and Geena Davis, who mops the floor as the smarter-than-she-looks fun girl Thelma, in these roles. Her no-good lout of a husband is played by the excellent dick character actor Christopher McDonald and is named, of course, Darryl. Harvey Keitel is the tough but sensitive Detective Hal Slocumbe. Louise's restless macho musician boyfriend she can't quite pin down is played by raspy-voiced Michael Madsen, who could not be named anything other than Jimmy. Brad Pitt plays J.D., bad-boy name incarnate (see Heathers) in a role that was given originally to Billy Baldwin.
It's a gorgeously shot film.
The colors are rich, the 'scapes are gritty, the desert is a vast, shimmery mirage of azure and rust-colored canyons and fuckin' freedom. Incidentally, I was sure I'd driven through parts of Arizona and New Mexico where the film looks to be shot, but it turns out all that jazz was filmed in Moab, Utah. And sure, it helps that Davis and Sarandon and Madsen and Pitt are lookers to infinity, but Thelma and Louise is so goldenly shot, everyone looks so fucking outlaw-ish-ly cool that it makes you want to jump in an dusty '66 Thunderbird convertible and hit the road — minus the tragedy.
Brad Pitt was not as sexy as I'd remembered.
Not that this is an important insight, but I remembered Brad Pitt as a much smoother operator in retrospect. He's certainly at the height of his young, tan, buff 90s heyday here (and it's his debut role), and he's great in the role, but there's more Eddie Haskell in the character than I picked up on before, a bit more squeaky adolescent/cheap hustler playing at manhood than I'd recalled. Did I grow up or something?
Anyway, do eeeeeet tonight.