Thelma & Louise
A long standing staple of action flicks is the venerable variation known as the buddy movie. Not only does this format drive action movies it is flexible enough to work with everything from musical comedies to drama. In most cases, especially in the more action oriented faire, the hormonal fuel for the buddies is testosterone; typically a consideration of male bonding. In 1991 a film was released that world be ground breaking just for the gender switch focusing on the exploits of a pair of women. "Thelma and Louise’ became a critical and box offices success easily tripling the $25 million investment with just domestic ticket sales. This movie also broke the gender boundary for the road trip flick, another versatile format that was forever altered by this film. The nineties was a couple of decades after Women’s liberation and the initial mainstream feminism movement but still had a long way to go especially in the film industry. Movies tend to reinforce popular stereotypes and one of the oldest and strongly engrained is a clear delineation between the macho male lead and the feminine leading lady. This film proved that women can be tough, resourceful and even criminally inclined yet still possesses a sexy persona. After this film the industry became increasingly open to the concept of strong women as the basis of a story. Previously powerful women were included in many movies but this was one of the first that diminished most male roles to secondary characters leaving the way open for the leading ladies to dominate the entire story. If this film was about ‘Thomas and Louie’ it would have been branded as a hackney crime spree flick. What made this movie truly special was not only the gender basis addressed perfectly but the story was well crafted able to stand on its own as taut, compelling entertainment. What some may lose sight of with this movie is the impact it has as a work of cinematic art. It boasts incredible direction, written and offers a platform for two of the most memorable performances recorded on film. The final scene is so amazingly forceful, so iconic that over time it as eclipsed the full value of this film.
The foundation of the groundbreaking nature of this film is the script by Callie Khouri. Raised in Texas and Kentucky Ms Khouri certainly drew from experience in the detail presentation of the main characters. She took the meticulous creation of the titular characters to a screenplay that allowed her to bring home both the Golden Globes and academy Award for this script. She would go on to a screenplay that is a lot more in line with the kind of movie typically dubbed ‘a Chick flick’; Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’. It is a long stretch of road from "Thelma and Louise’ running from the law to a group of young women searching for love in magic blue jeans. The strength of the script is in the way the two women are constructed. Thelma (Geena Davis) is a run of the mill housewife keeping up the home of her controlling husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald). He stifles Thelma this is the only life she knows. Thelma is a touch eccentric, using humor to mask her passive aggression. Taking a play from the male counterparts Louise is crafted to be the opposite of her friend providing a stark contrast in personalities. Louise is smart, independently strong willed and much more organized than her friend. She supports herself waitressing in a local diner. These roles represent the two most commonly used female archetypes in film; housewives and waitresses. The brilliance is derived from how their actions diverge from the audience’s expectations for characters like this. The change works largely because the two female prototypes represent lives that many women in the audience can readily identify with. This pulls them into the story in much the same fashion that men are drawn into buddy film adventures. For once the women get to experience the vicarious thrill of the outlaw.
The director of this film is one with an established proficiency in testosterone laden films including ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Black Hawk Down’; Ridley Scott. He also had a prior film that utilized a strong, determined woman with the science fiction classic ‘Alien’. Instead of a man saving the day he opted for a mature version of the classic horror film trope, the survivor girl; able to defeat the unstoppable monster and emerge alive. There is another male institution that in pivotal to the story and mystic of the film; the American muscle car. The 1966 Thunderbird convertible is the kind of automobile that many boys have pictured in their rooms right next to their favorite starlet. Just to soften the vehicle for the ladies Scott had it painted in an odd shade of teal. The car was suppose to take the friends on a two day fishing vacation but it doesn’t take long before they are being chased by most of the local law enforcement community. No matter what the gender some reasonable rationale for the illegal involvement; in this story there is a case that can be made for self defense, well sort of. They meet up with a stranger, Harlan Puckett (Timothy Carhart) in a honky-tonk and he makes the mistake of trying to rape Thelma and cursing out Louise. Louise reacts by shooting the wannabe cowboy dead starting their brief but dramatic life on the run. Before they can reach Mexico the police have them cornered and holding hands they take the car over the cliff.
Scott’s trademark directorial style continued to serve him well here. He wastes no time introducing the audience to the central characters in a sympathetic light permitting the viewer to quickly forge an emotional bond with these women. The film is successful because it deals with understandable human beings instead to the long established Hollywood gender roles. Whether you are male or female you are able to understand these characters, empathizing with them even in light that ultimately some bad decisions brought this plight upon them. It seems impossible that twenty years has passed since I first saw this in the theater but this Blu-ray release is an anniversary edition. Needless to say it looks and sounds better than ever but what matters most is how well the story holds together.