Thelma & Louise (1991)

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Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Callie Khouri

Rated R

Susan Sarandon as Louise Sawyer
Geena Davis as Thelma Dickinson
Harvey Keitel as Detective Hal Slocumb
Michael Madsen as Jimmy Lennox
Christopher McDonald as Daryl Dickinson
Brad Pitt as J.D.
Stephen Tobolowsky as Max
Timothy Carhart as Harlan Puckett
Marco St. John as Truck Driver
Jason Beghe as State Trooper

“ … well darlin’, look out, cause my hair is comin’ down.” – Thelma Dickinson

So says Thelma at the beginning of Thelma & Louise, and so it does.  Ridley Scott’s influential, unforgettable road trip odyssey was 1991’s best film, in a year with so many great films.

Gal pals Thelma and Louise (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon) are taking off in Louise’s 1966 Thunderbird for a weekend getaway.  Louise is reeling from her latest relationship with a non-committal musician named Jimmy (Michael Madsen).  Thelma is a stay-at-home wife, married to her high school sweetheart Daryl (Christopher McDonald), an insecure chauvinist who treats Thelma like a possession.  He demoralized her so much that she resorts to leaving him a note in the microwave, letting him know of her weekend plans.

The road trip comes to a halt at a honkytonk, where Thelma is being pursued by the smooth-talking cowboy Harlan (Timothy Carhart).  The interaction between the two leads to a tragic and violent altercation in the parking lot, and the two women flee.  Thus begins their series of adventures on the road.

Everything is just right in this film.  It could have been a standard buddy picture, and even then it still would have been a great film.  But the script is so alive, original, and smart, the material is escalated to a higher level of cinematic art.  Callie Khouri writes Thelma and Louise as real-life, flesh and blood women.  Like so many women in these films, they are at the mercy of men: some good, some bad, some indifferent.

Det. Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) wants to help the women.  Louise interrupts a rape attempt when Harlan attacks Thelma, and it triggers long-festered memories of an event from her past.  Det. Slocumb is aware of this, and it gives him insight into what happened the night Thelma and Louise went on the lam.

Daryl is that high school bully who never grew up.  McDonald plays the part well, and the character of Daryl is comic relief – until a scene near the end where he realizes the sins of his behavior toward his wife.  There is no dialogue in the scene, and McDonald is fantastic.  Brad Pitt, in one of his earliest roles, is a revelation as J.D., the sexy young drifter who awakens Thelma’s carnal desires.  Sure, J.D. is criminal, but he’s crucial in moving the story along to its destination, and it’s easy to see why this film paved the path to Pitt’s stardom.

Madsen has the tricky role of playing the indifferent male presence in the film.  He loves Louise, in his own way, and his actions indicate he could commit, but he isn’t ready for the life Louise was hoping to have with him.  He’s not exactly a ne’er-do-well, but he’s no hero either.  The scenes with Sarandon and Madsen are tender and bittersweet.  This is not a male-bashing film, rather a film about women’s liberation.

The casting is essential, and Davis and Sarandon are perfect.  The film’s development had several different actresses attached to the film, at one point or another, in the early stages: Jodie Foster, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer.  All great actresses, but I can’t imagine this film without Davis and Sarandon.  The chemistry between the two actresses is effortless, and both turn these heroines into women of depth, humor, complexity, and intelligence.  Sarandon scored four Best Actress nominations in five years, finally winning for 1995’s Dead Man Walking.  She has made a career of playing strong, empowered women.  Davis, already an Oscar-winner for The Accidental Tourist when this film was released, played television’s first female President in a weekly series, Commander in Chief.  The series only lasted one season, but Davis earned an Emmy nomination and won a Golden Globe.

Ridley Scott is the right director for this film.  His earlier directorial efforts Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) may not have indicated he would be the best fit, but his instincts are keen and incisive, which proves his gifts transcend genres.  It is clear he is a gifted collaborator, directing two of the most iconic screen performances.  Of course, Scott has seen considerable success since Thelma & Louise, with White Squall (1996), G.I. Jane (1997), Black Hawk Down (2001), Matchstick Men (2003), American Gangster (2007), Prometheus (2012) – and 2000’s Best Picture Oscar-winner, Gladiator.  But if the earlier films suggested a talented filmmaker, Thelma & Louise cemented the proof.

The film’s ending is no secret by now, 23 years after its release.  The film could not have ended differently and maintained the truth of everything that came before.  The journey became the ride of their lives, and viewers will miss them long after the movie has ended.

I felt alive after this movie.  Thelma & Louise moved and inspired me.  I felt invigorated with the sense of freedom these women felt when they finally took matters into their own hands, and stopped allowing The Man to dictate the road map of their destiny.  There is a deep feminine affection for this film, but the film’s real triumph is it’s universal appeal – ultimately, the celebration of the human experience.  And if men come away from the film with a better understanding of women, who can fault that?

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