Thelma & Louise haven’t lost any of their bite, even after 30 years.
When the film was released in 1991, it sparked a wave of controversy that seemed to surprise its cast and crew. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon appeared on the cover of Time magazine, under the headline “Why Thelma & Louise Strikes A Nerve”; the particular nerve he hit has been debated a lot. Was it, as some critics have estimated, a film of thoughtless violence that saw two women commit terrible crimes in the name of “empowerment”? Were they acting like men under the guise of feminism? Or was it actually misandry, unfair to men, because she described all of her male characters as horrible? (Never mind they’re not all awful; it’s a pre-hashtag #NotAllMen). Were they role models? Was this a feminist parable? Was this ending one of the few that truly deserved the overused adjective “iconic,” perfect, or an evasion? In The Last Journey, a 2002 documentary about the making of Thelma & Louise, Sarandon addressed all the noise and said, “Movies at their best should challenge your point of view.” It’s the best in cinema.
In the following years, this 1966 Thunderbird was driven into the canon of classic cinema. It’s one of the only movies I still have on DVD, as I can’t stand being at the mercy of a streaming service that may choose to delete it. He has been so regularly usurped and imitated that the outline of his story should be familiar, even if the film is a distant memory: two women go on a weekend, meet a rapist, shoot him, go on the run, then, rather than surrender, they enter the Grand Canyon in a flame of glory. Brad Pitt appears there, with his top. Everyone from Marge Simpson to Taylor Swift has tried their own version.
It has left a cartoonish imprint on the pop culture landscape, a testament to its brilliance, but the film itself is far more complex than its familiar image. There’s a lot about it that remains bold, but even now I think one of the boldest decisions writer Callie Khouri and director Ridley Scott have made is to let it be funny, despite the weight. of some of his scenarios. It’s quick, sarcastic, even silly. Thelma tells Louise to turn on the cop’s radio, she blows the one playing music in his car. Darryl, Thelma’s grotesque, smooth and impassive husband, is so unable to speak to her nicely that when he answers the phone with a pleasant “hello”, she immediately knows he is being watched by the police. “My husband wasn’t nice to me,” she tells the sexist truck driver who cruelly heckled her with Louise on the road, “and look how I got there.”
There are an obscene number of air-punch moments like this (see also: “Fuck you, Darryl”), though brilliantly Khouri still drags audiences into some sort of moral turmoil. Thelma is famously robbed by Pitt’s JD, although he has given her a fair warning that he is a thief. He leaves her with the gift of his criminal playbook, and she turns out to be really, really good at a life of crime. It’s satisfying to watch her run a store, charmingly, with the exact lines JD gave her. But was her choice to commit an armed robbery worse than Louise’s spontaneous decision to shoot Harlan in the heart? Should they blow up the moron’s truck? Is it cathartic? Is it won? Movies, at their best, should challenge your point of view.
Somewhere in an alternate universe, there’s a version of Thelma & Louise made with her top casting picks – Michelle Pfeiffer, Jodie Foster and Billy Baldwin, instead of Brad Pitt – and another ending, debated until ‘she is turned as she was, in which Louise pushes Thelma out of the car at the last minute. Sarandon says she fought hard to keep the ending as it was written and succeeded. Davis and Sarandon often spoke of scarcity then and since of women in charge of their own stories. “It’s not too often that you play an outlaw as a woman,” Sarandon said. Thelma & Louise was supposed to open the floodgates to more women opening movies, but it’s not. This is still an outlier. Davis spent the latter part of her career fighting for gender equality on screen.
It’s an obvious line to draw, but it’s hard not to see Thelma & Louise through a #MeToo lens. There are very recent shows and movies that carry her influence, whether on purpose or by osmosis, from Promising Young Woman to I May Destroy You. This is partly the subject. They all deal with the after-effects of sexual assault. But it is also because of their ambiguous morality. “I’m going to say he raped me and you shot him. It’s close to the truth, ”Thelma said, looking for a way out of their state of flight. But this is not the truth. Louise doesn’t kill the hateful Harlan for raping Thelma. She shoots him when the couple walk away. She shoots him because he’s not sorry, hasn’t calmed down, is angry that Louise has arrested him and because he calls her a bitch. Khouri puts breadcrumbs on Louise’s traumatic backstory without ever being too obvious; something terrible has happened to him and there is no doubt that his split second decision to pull that trigger has its roots in Texas. This is a character study on PTSD.
Plus, Louise is too wise of the world to think anyone would believe them, even if they told the police their side of what happened. A crowded bar saw Thelma dance cheek to cheek with the dead man. No one would accept that he attacked her. “We don’t live in that kind of world, Thelma!” said Louise. After 30 years, we still don’t live in this kind of world. As the couple are still planning their weekend, not knowing it will be their last, Louise gently berates Thelma for putting up with Darryl. “You are what you settle for,” she said. Thelma & Louise’s greatest legacy is a reminder not to settle down. It always strikes a nerve.