Every great ‘road movie’, from Easy Rider to Paper Moon, captures a reflection of the cultural zeitgeist, travelling far away from their point of interest in order to contemplate the whole conversation in perspective. The tensions and issues of a historical period are examined and deconstructed, usually leading a central protagonist(s) on a journey of self-discovery and recuperation, for better or for worse. Rather distressingly, however, despite being 30-years-old this year, Thelma & Louise remains as current and as powerful as its release in 1991, speaking of a repressive patriarchal society that imposes its weight upon two victims of its reign.
Where often a male lead would grab the steering wheel of a road movie, here Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise takes inspiration from Spielberg’s Sugarland Express, and reimagines the typical male-buddy film with female protagonists, in addition to a freshness that would come to redefine the genre. Written and creatively masterminded by screenwriter Callie Khouri, who would win an Oscar for her debut piece of work, the film is a Western-inspired, venomously-spiked escape to Mexico, avoiding Texas at all costs. Following a largely unspoken incident in Louise’s past, the refusal to go through Texas remains the pair’s only real rule, as they break for the border following a violent incident, armed only with a handgun and a newfound lust for life.
Driving rampant across the dusty Arkansas roads, the two fugitives Thelma (Geena Davis), and Louise (Susan Sarandon) attract an increasing amount of male attention, with a distinct lack of female interference. From police officer’s Harvey Keitel and Stephen Tobolowsky, to cowboy criminal Brad Pitt, the titular outlaws are suffocated with male attention (both wanted and unwanted) along with their oppressive behaviour. Such is punctuated by Pitt’s excellent ‘J.D’, a wise-cracking hunk that gives Thelma pause for thought, though is also a little exaggerated by other strange individuals the duo encounter en route. Once controlled by their husbands and an overbearing society, best friends Thelma and Louise find newfound freedom in their escape on the road, toward an unknown life of total self-agency.
Wrestling for control of the situation, the central dynamic between Sarandon and Davis is the films true driving force, one that echoes the iconic relationship between Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Though whilst George Roy Hill’s classic Western plods quietly along, Ridley Scott’s portrayal of an urgent, zippy relationship thrown into turmoil is in many ways a more compelling alliance. Their close relationship and enduring trust for each other is intrinsic to the makeup of the film itself, for in a domineering patriarchal world there is no one else to turn to.
Their snappy, sarcastic trip across Southern America may be brightened by moments of levity, but by its conclusion, Thelma & Louise is a tragedy of sobering proportions. Penned in, and trapped by a darkly-clad army of enforcers, the fugitive duo are a victim of the society which surrounds them, making their ultimate fate a desperate attempt to continue their freedom in whatever shape or form. Although this iconic ending which sees the two characters fly across the Grand Canyon in their turquoise Thunderbird is in many ways extricating, it is also doomed. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thelma and Louise’s grim fate is sealed at perhaps their most liberating moment.
It was however an ending preferred to Scott’s own grim alternate conclusion that showed the police officers assess Thelma and Louise’s demise, showing a factual death to the titular duo instead of some sort of endearing hope. A landmark of feminist cinema, Callie Khouri’s film helmed by Ridley Scott is an uncompromising look into the contemporary female experience, picking apart chauvinist male attitudes to aspire for a better tomorrow. Unfortunately, it remains as relevant as ever.