No matter how many times you see it, the scene when a green Thunderbird soars into a canyon taking the two women in it to certain death, the eyes mist over and a lump appears in the throat. It must be one of the most memorable climaxes in movie history and any aficionado would recognize the film—Thelma & Louise — directed by Ridley Scott. The film that went on to become a feminist cult classic was released on May 24. 1991; in 30 years, a lot has changed for women, but a lot has remained the same in a male-dominated society that still seeks to crush women’s autonomy.
Thelma (Geena Davis) is a homemaker, stuck in a hopeless marriage to a brutish man, and not even realizing what she is missing. Louise (Susan Sarandon) is a waitress, with a wound in her past that she does not want to talk about. She is single, but has a caring boyfriend. The two women decide to take a two-day break when a friend’s holiday home becomes available. Thelma does not have the courage to inform her husband—she leaves food and a note for him, and hopes to be able to face the consequences when they return. She packs everything that they might need—including a lantern and a pistol, which she hands over to Louise with a grimace.
Thelma has never taken a road trip, never seen the country, so, feeling the rush of sudden freedom, she wants to have fun. She drinks too much at a rest stop and dances with a stranger who flirts with her. Harlan then takes her to the car park, slaps her around and attempts to rape her. Louise comes to the rescue and ends up shooting the attacker dead.
Holiday plans junked now, their only thought is to get away and hope they do not get caught. Thelma, with blood trickling down her face, wants to go to the police, but the older and wiser Louise knows they won’t be believed. Nobody witnessed the rape attempt, but dozens of people saw her dancing and giving the man sexual signals that could easily be misinterpreted. They do not know, as a plain-speaking waitress does—and tells the first responder cop Hal (Harvey Keitel)– that Harlan was a notorious abuser of women.
Hitting the road, Louise plans to borrow money from her boyfriend, Jimmy (Michael Madsen), and cross the border over to Mexico. Again, it’s Thelma’s ditziness and naivete that pushes them onto a winding path to their doom. She insists—making cute panting sounds—that they give a lift to JD, a handsome hitchhiker with a “cute ass,” (a sinfully handsome young Brad Pitt). When they reach a motel, Jimmy is waiting for them with Louise’s life savings in an envelope and a ring in his pocket. Louise turns down his marriage proposal, because she does not want to make Jimmy an accessory to her crime.
JD shows Thelma a good time—she has never been with anyone except her husband, whom she describes as “infantile”— and the sexual adventure liberates something inside Thelma that is fearless and risk-taking. He steals their escape money, and while Louise collapses in shock and tears, Thelma takes control. She holds up a store for money and the CC TV camera captures her politely demanding cash and coolly walking out. They were just suspects in the murder, but now they are felons and fugitives on the run from the cops. For a crime as ordinary as that, they have the full power of law enforcement in pursuit.
They know by now that there is no going back, and start to accept their badass “outlaw” roles. Thelma started the trip in a strappy white dress, she is now seen in jeans; Louise trades her jewellery for a cowboy hat and wraps a rag around her throat to mop up sweat. Their hair is wild, their faces tanned, they are beyond vanity.
They run into two more men—a cop, who wants to call them in and ends up in the trunk of his car, with a hole shot in it to help him breathe. Thelma has a fabulous line here, “You be sweet to your wife. My husband wasn’t sweet to me, and look how I turned out,” she says to the cop. (Incidentally, the writer of this film Callie Khourie won an Oscar for her screenplay; surprisingly the directors and actresses did not).
A trucker they keep running into, who makes obscene gestures and lewd remarks at them, finally gets his truck blown up. The women have toughened up enough to hit back at a harasser. They don’t kill either man; they use violence when inevitable, but do not revel in the power of the gun. Hal turns out to be surprisingly supportive of the two, aware that they were not to blame for the tragedy that is about to unfold. If Thelma had not been brutally attacked, Louise would not have shot the man; if JD had not robbed them, Thelma would not have been guilty of armed robbery. They just wanted a two-day vacation, which spiraled downwards, because of the actions of the men they encountered. A male criminal would not have had an army hunting them, but female rebels had to be subdued to keep other women in line.
When it was released, there was considerable criticism for the film’s anti-male slant. Film critic Sheila O’Malley said in a discussion on rogerebert.com for the film’s 25th anniversary. “It was one of THOSE movies at the time, I do remember that, the kind that get a lot of worried think-pieces, and are they “justified” in what they did, and why are the men so awful, and what’s happening to wimmen these days?? It was tiresome then and it’s tiresome now. I don’t need women to be “strong” in the movies, but I DO need them to be complex and human and watchable.”
Why is the film so unforgettable? Mainly because the buddy movie genre had been dominated by men till then, and still is. There are still too few films about women’s friendship like Thelma & Louise, and there is no hint of the sexual about it. A few seconds before they decide to die rather than be caught and spend the rest of their lives in misery, Louise kisses Thelma, but it is a good-bye kiss, one that conveys gratitude for the loyalty and pain for their futile hopes of a happy future. They hold hands and choose death, because after tasting freedom and power, there is no way they are going to live behind a cage.
There were other unusual little touches too – like Louise shattering the women can’t drive myth, by driving like a champ; both women, going against popular perception, read maps perfectly well. They never swear and expect good manners from the people they come across. Their behavior is not imitative of male aggression. The film held up a mirror to a society that holds a threat of violence over the heads of women to prevent them from being truly free.
The film also faced criticism for punishing its female protagonists for daring to live on their own terms, even if it is only for a weekend. Callie Khouri, quoted in theatlantic.com, had responded to that with: “To me, the ending was symbolic, not literal … We did everything possible to make sure you didn’t see a literal death. That you didn’t see the car land, you didn’t see a big puff of smoke come up out of the canyon. You were left with the image of them flying. They flew away, out of this world and into the mass unconscious. Women who are completely free from all the shackles that restrain them have no place in this world. The world is not big enough to support them … I loved that ending and I loved the imagery. After all they went through, I didn’t want anybody to be able to touch them.”
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal on May 19, 2021)