Thelma & Louise Review
Brad Pitt’s fingers
During a recent podcast, the usual participants and I discussed the twentieth anniversary of Ridley Scott’s American road movie Thelma & Louise, the subject of tonight’s review. It has been some ten years since last I watched the magnificent MGM DVD and I had forgotten just what a powerfully moving film it actually is. Most recall specific moments, such as we did, but these moments are raindrops in the ocean when compared to the whole. The script from Callie Khouri won her an Academy Award and the principle cast were all up for the same. In the hands of Scott, who was on the very crest of his creative wave, and whose English eye saw something wonderfully new in the American landscapes, painted his frame with indelible colour and wonderful images managed to get the very best out of the script and cast respectively. As such Thelma & Louise transcends genres and becomes a powerful visual delight that one cannot help but be swept away by.
Khouri’s script, which took over ten years to come to fruition, or more precisely the act that leads into the film proper, is thankfully the only element that can be said to date the movie – that of women being afraid to report a rape, or intended rape, for fear of being ridiculed, or being called a liar, or that they were ‘asking for it’ – however, vestiges of that stigma still remain, and as such the film is still as relevant now as it was twenty years ago. Khouri and Scott were not afraid to tackle this subject head on, and mention it twice, by showing Thelma’s misfortune and implying Louise’s. And by setting the whole film in the South with its overall connotations of ‘red-necks’ our heroines are portrayed as being up against it right from the off. All the male characters, save one, may not be totally tarred with the same brush, but all have splashes from it. The main villain, Harlan, played with a smarmy relish by Timothy Carhart, is clearly bad right from the first words he speaks – it is only Thelma’s sheltered life that allows the conversation to continue; Louise, who has clearly seen his type before , either as a waitress, or in her life before, is suitably wary, and only her friendship with Thelma lets the events unfold. In the bar he plies Thelma with drinks and effortlessly charms her naivety with dancing and spinning; it’s all a rouse of course to get her outside, and once that happens his real intentions are shockingly clear. And shocking is the right wood, I had forgotten quite how nasty this short attack was, Carhart is thoroughly reprehensible - hitting, growling, frenzied and drooling – if Louise hadn’t come in to save the day this would have been the worst atrocity committed to celluloid and remains far more shocking than The Accused, just three years before, with its full on assault. Even when stopped, Harlan shows no signs of regret, or even fear, for his predicament - you feel that there is clear justification for Louise’s actions and this is even before we know what drives her.
Although painted the most black, Harlan, is not the last of the characters that get their comeuppance with the girls; the truck driver, who, in his own way, is as representative of the male mindset being portrayed that think “all women want it, even if they say no” – his tongue movements and hip gyrations are just as seedy as Harlan’s drinking actions – both want to lead to the same thing – he is even as defiant as Harlan was with a resounding “f. you” to the girls when they demand an apology from him at gun point. If these two characters are the extreme end, the other male leads fair only slightly better. Look at Thelma’s husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald), whose behaviour to his wife is so awful she lives in constant fear of him – we have no evidence that he is physically abusive but there is ample to suggest the verbal. And I love the phallic car he drives, typifying his attitude. Brilliant how he becomes the comic relief and the eventual wife in the relationship with the police that take over his home. Then there is Louise’s man, Jimmy (Michael Madsen) who even though is nearly the most sympathetic male character is still able to smash a room up to get his point across. And while J.D., Brad Pitt’s first significant Hollywood role, is also reasonably sympathetic it is his stealing of the girl’s money that drives them further into desperation. His confrontation with the only truly sympathetic male, Hal (Harvey Keitel), highlights quite how low down the food chain he is. Which brings us to Hal, himself; the one male in the whole film with any ounce of compassion – he wants to help the girls, not for himself, but for them. As a policeman who has seen what happens to fugitives or to innocents that run, or to people in the wrong place at the wrong time, he still maintains an open mind and one filled with justice – he is genuinely concerned for the welfare of these two desperate women and wants to bring them home to save them. Amazingly this can all be seen in his first scene with the waitress from the bar, the simple smile and laugh he had with the girl after their interview, we instinctively know he is the good guy in all the mayhem that is to follow.
And Keitel puts in one of his best performances here, just about as far as you can get from the usual mob hoods, or corrupt hoodlums, that he is best known.
But this is all about the incidental characters, what of the mains? Due to the protracted pre-production period there were many actresses considered for the roles of Thelma and Louise. The story goes that Geena Davis hounded Scott for one of the parts; she didn’t care which and was signed up to play either depending on who was cast for the other role. She spent a year preparing just for the initial interview! Eventually she was cast as Thelma, the young house bound wife who has never been with another man, and knows very little of the ‘outside’ world. She is also quite kooky in her attitude towards life, leaving a note and a small bear tied to a beer bottle about her trip with Louise. She is very naive when it comes to men, with Harlan’s advances she sees nothing of the threat, she implicitly trusts J.D. despite his assertion that he is a robber, so is almost childlike in her attitude towards life. See how she packs her case – emptying an entire draw into the bag. Because of this young attitude she thinks nothing of her transformation later in the film, in the scene when Louise breaks down, you can see in her eyes she has already formulated a plan, a plan that she only heard about and listened to with wild childlike wonder and is therefore copied verbatim from J.D. In this scene she takes the lead of the two characters, but is still not above being admonished – when she rightly guesses Louise’s misfortune in Texas and Louise stops the car and tells her to drop it, she understands she has crossed a line, but rather than take a telling off, as she would have done earlier in the movie, she reacts as an equal and the pairs friendship becomes that much stronger for it. Her attitude on life totally changes throughout the movie, she becomes life, blossoming into a whole person and it is only fitting that the idea to keep driving came from her.
Louise was played by Susan Sarandon, and at ten years older than Davis took on the mothering aspect of this character. In the beginning she is seen as neat, tidy and controlled, look at the way she packs her bags, shoes in plastic bags, and how she leaves her apartment; spic and span. Her attitude on life is very different to Thelma’s, she is wary and distrustful of any man, at first we assume it’s her job as a waitress that makes her so, but later we learn of how life has conspired to put her down, and it is a testament of her character that she in not bitter and twisted. As the mother type character she make the decisions and leads the way, Thelma always looking to her for what to do in any situation – after the shooting, and while in the motel, Louise treats Thelma almost as a child, comforting her, telling her to sit by the pool while she figures something out. Her relationship with Jimmy is far more adult, even when he is breaking up the room, she is cool and calculating, and his offer of marriage is taken as a sign of comfort, even though she knows she cannot accept, and cannot tell him why, she is almost a mother in this aspect too. So it comes as a clear shock when she does breakdown on the discovery of the stolen money. She has nothing left to give and it is only after this scene that she begins to really grow again, her old life finally put to rest as she and Thelma bond beyond that of mother and daughter, beyond that of mere friends, they become soul mates forever holding hands, forever on the road. The switchover from when Thelma takes charge is never more apparent than when the pair are stopped by the state trooper on the highway – Louise is in shock, she doesn’t know where to turn, and isn't thinking quite straight, “Shoot the radio – no, shoot the police radio” typifies her regressing into a childlike mindset, becoming literal but from that point on she becomes as free as Thelma in her attitude on life. They both take on the truck driver, they both shoot it out, they both keep on driving.
There was a lot of criticism levelled at the film upon its initial release on its male bashing nature, or how it was pro-feminism, even ridiculous labels of lesbianism, or how it empowered women. In actuality these are unfounded within the film itself. It is true that the male characters are all, with the exception of Hal, painted in a less than glowing light, but this is needed to highlight the lives of the girls, how and why they make the choices they do is a product of the world they are living in. And make no mistake they are making decisions based on what the world is throwing at them, they are never proactive, always reactive – right from that first gunshot everything they do is a reaction to a situation as it happens. It’s not that they make bad choices, in the confines of the movie, they drive the only road they know how, put yourself in their shoes, how would you react in the same circumstance after living those lives? These are questions that the film asks, and like the best films it does not spoon feed you any answers, but leaves interpretation up to the audience. The film does not ‘bash men’, it does not advocate feminism, there is no women empowerment and as to accusations of lesbianism, get real! What it does do is turn a typically male dominated arena of the road movie on its head and allows two strong women characters to take the lead and define their own destiny. And the reason it is so powerful is because of that ending. Scott was absolutely correct to cut the scene where he does – the car on the way up before cutting back to the montage of the girls lives preceding that moment – it gives the film an upbeat motif even in a downbeat ending and it is a credit to Scott, his producers and the studio that it was kept in, as without it the film could so easily have been lost. In the best traditions of unexpected ending (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Italian Job (both 1969)) Thelma & Louise manages to top them all and gives the film a timeless quality where the lights, camera and action come together to create that perfect moment. Highly recommended.