RETRO REVIEW: “Thelma & Louise”

Ridley Scott’s acclaimed road-trip crime movie “Thelma & Louise” came out 31 years ago this month. And after watching it again for the first time in well over a decade, I was blown away by how well it still holds up. With its strong female-driven story, “Thelma & Louise” still resonates today. And while it’s characterization of men can still be over-the-top to the point of cartoonish, that’s kinda the point in a movie about women taking charge of their own fate in such a male-dominated society.

“Thelma & Louise” came out on March 24, 1991 and was a hit both critically and commercially. It would go on to earn six Academy Award nominations including two Best Actress nods for its stars, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. Ridley Scott was also nominated for directing. The movie’s lone Oscar win was for its screenplay written by Callie Khouri. It was Khouri’s first feature film script. What a way to make a splash.

“Thelma & Louise” was followed by some controversy at the time. It faced several accusations from those calling the movie “anti-male” for its depictions of men. But again, the movie is a parable with a very important point to make. And focusing on the movie’s sometimes exaggerated portrayal of men instead of the message being conveyed is doing it a disservice. And it’s not like every single male presence in the film is decidedly negative. I like what Khouri said in response to the controversy, “If you think it’s anti-male, you’re identifying with the wrong character.”

The story centers around two best friends from Arkansas stuck in their dreary mundane lives. Louise (Susan Sarandon) is a waitress who’s tired waiting for her on-again, off-again boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen) to commit. Thelma (Geena Davis) is a housewife married to a slimeball car salesman named Darryl (a hilariously despicable Christopher McDonald). Louise has planned a weekend fishing trip just for the two friends, but Thelma is scared to bring it up to her self-obsessed husband. After yet another Darryl tantrum, Thelma decides she doesn’t need his permission. She leaves him a note next to his TV dinner and calls Louise.

The two pack their bags and head out in Louise’s 1966 Thunderbird convertible for a road-trip that will change their lives. It begins when they stop to stretch their legs at a roadside honky-tonk where Thelma catches the eye of the overly flirty Harlan (Timothy Carhart). But what starts as a few drinks and some dancing ends up with Harlan beating and attempting to rape Thelma in the parking lot. Louise finds them and shoots Harlan dead with a pistol Thelma swiped from Darryl’s bedside drawer.

Thelma wants to go directly to the police, but the cynical Louise (for reasons that become clearer later in the movie) doesn’t think the cops will believe them, especially since the entire club saw Thelma and Harlan all over each other on the dance floor. So they go on the run, driving into Oklahoma and plotting a route to Mexico that doesn’t include Texas. Why not Texas you ask? That too becomes clearer as the story progresses.

A good on-the-lam movie needs a good pursuer and “Thelma & Louise” has one in Harvey Keitel. He plays Hal Slocumb, an Arkansas State Police detective with a heart. He’s genuinely concerned about Thelma and Louise and does his best to find them and bring them in before things get out of hand. Keitel has such a natural charisma and he’s such a nice fit here.

And of course there’s Brad Pitt in the supporting role that put him on the map. He plays a gentlemanly and good-looking young cowboy named J.D. who hitches a ride with Thelma and Louise as they’re crossing Oklahoma. It’s not a particularly great performance, but I don’t think it’s the performance that earned him the most attention (if you get what I mean).

Still, without question the stars are Sarandon and Davis. Flipping gender roles for a road-trip buddy movie was certainly significant. But this isn’t simply a case of two women simply mimicking what men have done in similar movies. Sarandon and Davis make for a spirited duo and they bring personality, grit, and humor their roles. And they really get to have fun once the second half kicks in. “We’re fugitives now. Let’s start behaving like that.”

While there is a real weight to the story itself, the two leads, Khouri’s straight-shooting script, and Ridley Scott’s stellar direction gives it room to be funny, warm, and even a little crazy. Some of the male caricatures are a little too goofy (see the chauvinistic truck driver who wears out his welcome after his second appearance). And the ending, though unquestionably iconic, has never fully felt right to me. I really like the choice and I even like the freeze-frame. But the quick fade to white ends things on such a hurried note. We’re seeing credits before the weight of what has happened can really set in. Still, it wraps things up in the most fitting way, and it gives the movie the kind of final punch that people are still talking about today.


12 thoughts on “RETRO REVIEW: “Thelma & Louise”

  1. I *was* Thelma when this movie came out. I’ve come a long way, baby. This movie turned up when I needed it. A line from it I never forgot: “You get what you settle for.” I am pissed that she let the money fly out of the window, but other than that, I loved this. And it certainly did put Brad Pitt on my map! I like the way they made (most of) the men almost cartoonish. I didn’t like how it ended either, but I have never thought about an ending that would have been better…

    • Love hearing when timely movies have an impact. And while I’m not crazy about the ending’s execution, I do think it’s extremely fitting especially and how it relates to one of the movie’s central themes. In one sense it’s inspiring because these two women went and took control of their lives. On the other hand, the only way they could keep control was driving off of a canyon. It’s a heartbreaking indictment.

  2. This is one I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t seen. I already knew I had a good movie to look forward to but your retro review detailing the characters (i.e. Christopher McDonald — he does slime ball to perfection!) makes me want to get to it sooner now

    • McDonald gets lost in a lot of the praise this movie tends to get. He’s soooo freaking good in this. Extremely slimy and extremely funny. No one could play that character better. If you see it be sure to tell me what you think.

  3. I’m really enjoying your site and this is a spot on review. During my film college days we studied this screenplay and it’s a brilliantly structured script. The screenwriter Callie Khouri absolutely deserved her Oscar win and her feisty voice shines through the characters. And I love when directors step out of the comfort zone and do something different. I’m still astonished that Ridley Scott pulled this off. It was such a huge departure for him.

    • Thanks so much. Appreciate the kind words. 100% on Khouri and Scott. This was most certainly a departure for Scott which really showed off his range as a director and storyteller.

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