In the end, it’s all about where you cut. Indeed, you can’t talk about the brilliant Thelma and Louise without discussing the fate of our fiery femme fatales. As scripted by eventual Oscar winner Callie Khouri, our bright and bubbly heroines, ultimately at wits end thanks to an oppressive, paternalistic justice system, were (SPOILER ALERT) meant to drive their old school convertible off the edge of the Grand Canyon, the final arc of the vehicle held for a single shocking moment before the film fades out. No crash. No comeuppance. No conclusion. Apparently, director Ridley Scott didn’t complete agree with that ending (perhaps it was nothing more than studio pressure), and filmed an additional moment where the car continues down into the ravine as co-star Harvey Keitel stands near the edge, lamenting the ladies’ forced fate.
BOO! As part of the exhilarating extras offered on the new Blu-ray release of the seminal 1991 film, we get a chance to see this misstep in all its dull witted male pattern wrongness. As an entity, as more than just a movie, Thelma and Louise is always trying to be pigeonholed by men unable to grasp its glorious girl power confines. Twenty years ago, pundits were practically beside themselves arguing over its merits – or lack thereof – suggesting that Scott and Khouri had collaborated on nothing more than the death of traditionalism and/or feminism. As outwardly stupid as that sentiment now seems, one thing is vitally clear upon a two decades in the making revisit. As much as Thelma and Louise seems to suggest a way out for actresses bogged down by bad romantic comedies and weepy dramas, an infamous estrogen-laced road film was not going to be the wake-up call Guyville as Tinseltown needed.
The story is quite simple. Thelma (Geena Davis) is a good timing goofball, married to a man (Christopher McDonald) who could teach chauvinistic pig rednecks and thing or two. She is BFF with Louise (Susan Sarandon), a hard living waitress with a sensitive boyfriend (Michael Madsen) who can’t seem to make her 100% happy. The pair decide to take a much-deserved break from their meandering man-boys, heading out into the Arkansas wilderness for a little R and R. A mishap at a roadside bar leads to near rape and possible murder, the duo driving away instead of facing the obviously prejudiced male-dominated police department. While a detective named Hal Slocumb (Keitel) is sympathetic to their plight, the FBI continue to hound the wounded women like America’s Most Wanted. As they try and make their way to Mexico, they run into all kinds of roadblocks, including financial, personal, and sexual, the latter in the personage of a hitchhiker named JD (Brad Pitt).
Eventually cornered, the girls take the “WTF?” way out, bonding in a beautiful, profound way before driving that fabled teal 1966 Thunderbird off the cliff. The eventual decision to hold the frame, to see the vehicle in free flight before allowing the image to flare and white out, stands as perhaps the most significant moment in the many stellar sequences this film has to offer. As an argument for Scott’s viability outside genre, it’s far more potent than American Gangster, Body of Lies, or the god awful A Good Year. In fact, in the twenty years since Thelma and Louise, the Alien ace has really never made a better, more brazen film. As for the stars, Davis and Sarandon shine, glowing with a kind of Earth mother madness that propels the viewer headlong into their insular universe of desperation and disrespect. Never once to we believe these women to be anything other than noble. Even within a pseudo-exploitative setting, they come across as champions.
That’s the grace note of Thelma and Louise, a film that uniquely captures the post ’70s zeitgeist of women’s issues in a way that few dissertations, let alone entertainments, can muster. Aside from the novelty of seeing gals in the outlaw position, taking on the literal ‘Man’ with clearly defined objectives, the movie argues for the no longer novel idea of equality leveling the troubled playing field. While Keitel’s character believes in the sexual assault aspect of the girl’s story, and actually wants to help them, the rest of the paternalistic clan can’t get beyond the criminal aftermath. It twists the whole victim/victimizer dynamic into an eccentric collection of pamphlet pages and dime store philosophies.
Sure, we laugh when Thelma and Louise shoot up a sexists trucker’s cab, but the reaction reveals the still settled double standard that exists. The less than flattering term used – the CB reference “beaver” – is met with a mass destruction of everything the lout stands for – his business, his mode of transportation, his access to freedom. It’s this element that is far more controversial than a pair of sisters pushing down the throttle and shuttling off this mortal coil. Thelma and Louise doesn’t just want to break the glass ceiling – it wants to illustrate what such a tit-for-tat examining of parity means. If a man shot a woman for making unwanted advances, tore through the countryside on a series of seemingly innocuous crimes, and thwarted authority every step of the way, he’d be some kind of spree felon desperado. Here, our leads are heroines? Really?
It’s that reflective mirror, that underlying theme of role reversal reciprocity that turns Thelma and Louise into a near masterpiece. Scott has such a flare for finding the right arid backdrop for his otherwise juicy byplay that he barely makes a misstep. He deserved an Oscar here, not for the mildly melodramatic dung of Gladiator. Similarly, Davis and Sarandon, originally accused of doing little except putting on a sassy Southern drawl, perfectly encompass the entirety of being a woman. They go from being helpless to harmful, compassionate to cold and calculated. When Pitt shows up as a piece of meat meant to undermine their growing closeness, the carnal desires felt repeat back on an industry that have treated such roadside pick-ups as slutty eye candy for far too long. Everything about this movie may read like gender turnabout, but in the end, there is nary a whiff of the accompanying fair play to be found.
It’s is interesting to listen to Scott discuss his intent on the Blu-ray release. His commentary is in direct contrast to the grrrl power roar of the Khouri/David/Sarandon track. These ladies love revisiting the film and find surprises and unknown nuances along the way. While other items included here – a mild music video, a set of storyboards setting up the final chase, the real insight can be found in the aforementioned alternate ending and deleted/extended scenes. There, Scott establishes his behind the lens brilliance. Included, this material mars an otherwise outstanding effort. Removed, they highlight the skillful way Scott realized his various thematic aims. Add that to the visual expanse on display (Thelma and Louise looks jaw-dropping in 2.35:1 HD) and a Behind the Scenes Making-of, and you can sense the movie’s majesty.
Of course, it could have all been for naught. Our heroines could have died in a fiery wreck, lamented by the only man in a man’s world ready to give them a break. Even worse was another idea to have the pair magically cross the canyon and escape to the other side. Like the cause of women in the latter half of the 20th Century, the ambiguous nature of Thelma and Louise‘s ending argues for a similar situation within the subject matter’s current social setting. There have been strides and setbacks, struggles and a continuing sentiment to push at any progress. Even today, the younger generation has traded the advances of the past for a Jersey Shore desire to be a professional drunken slag. As a cry for consideration, Thelma and Louise is magical. As a cautionary tale or primer, it’s been more or less ignored…sadly.