Thelma and Louise is the ultimate female fantasy trip – a road movie with the predictable elements of every on-the-lam flick ever made, including aerial stunts, an FBI chase, a parking lot murder, motel confrontations, seedy diners and saloons, picture postcard views of the American landscape through rear-view mirrors, and hot sex.
The difference is that every action, every mood shift, every excitement, and every plot manoeuvre is instigated, conceived and played by women.
The fact that the women are Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, giving two of the most dynamic performances of their careers, makes Thelma and Louise humorous, dramatic and mesmerising.
Thelma Dickinson (Davis) is a bored housewife saddled to a demanding, vulgar, chauvinistic moron of a husband. Louise Sawyer (Sarandon) is a bored short-order waitress in a greasy spoon cafe.
One day they decide to leave the men and the hassles in their dreary lives behind them and take a vacation together in Louise’s ’66 Thunderbird.
It’s supposed to be a liberating fishing trip, but on the way to the lake these two Arkansas bimbos stop off at a country and western roadhouse and Thelma gets a little bit too liberated on margaritas. A harmless flirtation with a cowboy leads to a brutal near-rape.
Louise kills the creep in a blinding rage and the girls find themselves in an accelerating series of incidents from which there seem no turning back. The result is a survival course that turns into a crime spree, changing their lives forever.
For a while it seems like a vehicle for two extraordinarily spunky actresses to play varying stages of nerves, anxiety and panic. But the irony is that the more they try to run away from men, the more their lives become controlled by men.
Bonding together emotionally is their only strength, and with each new turn on the highway, the two women experience truth through friendship and mutual trust they never knew with men.
These are women who grew up buying the roles society expects them to play on assignment, only to discover that conformity leads to self-delusion. Suddenly they are forced to face the dark reality of independence.
That discovery of the world within themselves takes a tremendous emotional toll. By the end, they have shared so much in their new identities as outlaws that they would rather die together than turn back.
Directed by Ridley (Alien) Scott, this is a refreshing departure from the usual gimmicks and mayhem in his movies. It’s totally about character development, almost allegorical in concept; the women make all the moves, not spaceships.
Observed from a female viewpoint, the men who constantly deceive, abuse and take advantage of Thelma and Louise – Thelma’s gruesome husband (Christopher McDonald), Louise’s quixotic boyfriend (Michael Madsen), a sexy con-man who rips off their life savings (Brad Pitt), even the detective who tries to save them (Harvey Keitel) – add valuable pieces to the mosaic.
But it is really the two stars who give the film its galvanising force. Working together like two hands of the same body, they are tough, funny, vulnerable, dumb, articulate, and touching.
By the end of the film they have explored and shared every key to their characters’ substance. They roll along like the wide-open highway that stretches ahead of them, taking us all through a rite of passage that is unforgettable.
Sonny Carl Davis