I haven’t re-watched Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise since it opened in theaters, so I’d forgotten how terrible it is at the beginning. And not just the beginning. Major Plot Turns are so heavily foreshadowed that a better word might be forestomped. Men are so evil — and Thelma’s taste in them so spectacularly bad — that you feel your vagina tightening up to shut that whole thing down. In short, though I’d begun watching with the plan to celebrate Callie Khouri’s script, I quickly started to itch for something to distract me.
But that’s the thing about this film. An great film gets birthed out of the head of a more mediocre film, and it rises like Athena through some great scenes that defy all the logic imposed early on. This isn’t so much a female buddy movie as a makeover movie — a movie about before and after.
We all remember this great shot: Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) posing for a selfie as they head out. This shot encapsulates the important differences between the two women: Louise’s persnickety neatness (her scarf worn like a snood, her lipstick), Thelma’s propensity to live recklessly (the blue eyeshadow, the impractical sundress).
They’re good friends, but underlying their friendship is all that stuff that makes friendships between women hard. Louise can be disapproving; Thelma can be childish, asking for permission from the stronger characters around her. The film’s first act focuses on the breakdown of this relationship.
At first it seems as if Thelma’s impetuousness and childishness will be the end of them. It’s bad enough that her cartoonishly boorish husband (Christopher McDonald, above) probably won’t give her permission to go away for the weekend with Louise, so she just runs out, taking along a handgun that she pulls, gingerly, from a bedside drawer. “I’ve had it up to my ass with sedate,” she proclaims from the passenger seat, and the movie waves a Giant Red Flag at us so we know something bad’s gonna happen.
You can’t help but identify with Louise in these early scenes. When the shit starts to hit the fan, Louise is the one who takes charge, protects her friend, and finds an exit strategy. But we can also see that her solutions mask old traumas. When Thelma is nearly raped by a bubba named Harlan in a roadside honkytonk, Louise uses the gun to rescue her — but when he calls her a bitch, she whips around and nails him in the heart with a bullet, and they run away.
The film’s middle act traces a shift in the women’s relationship after they escape. Thelma still makes spectacularly bad choices — not least of which is hooking up with an adorable if oily grifter/ hitchhiker named J.D. (Brad Pitt) who steals all their money — but she also begins to transform.
There’s a beautiful moment at the film’s midpoint, as a disheveled, traumatized Louise sits in the Thunderbird convertible in a parking lot, waiting for Thelma to return from the convenience store across the street. Everything has gone wrong, and it shows on her face. But then she locks eyes with an older woman inside the restaurant, a woman with a careworn face and a big helmet of hair. The film just allows them to look at each other, sharing an indescribable connection that you can’t help but ascribe to their mutual understanding of the burdens women carry. The scene breaks when Thelma careens out of the store that she’s just robbed — using J.D.’s script for such situations — and the two go roaring back down the road.
That delicate scene of mutual recognition opens the film’s final act, which encompasses a set of emotions that are difficult to convey neatly. No longer does Louise need to carry Thelma or clean up her messes; their shared outlaw status has transformed their relationship. Even as they race for the Mexican border, their relationship has a new feeling of possibility that mirrors the open sky. I don’t quite know how to explain this mood in the film, except to say that men have been squelching and molding and constraining women for so many centuries that no one, no one, really knows what they might do if they evaded that constraint completely — and the final third of Thelma and Louise reveals one version of what might happen when women free themselves.
How perfect, then, that this part of the film takes place in Monument Valley, and part of it during a quiet night. They coast through the eerie, glowing, open space, hardly speaking.
“I know. I know just what you mean,” Louise responds.
“I don’t remember ever feeling this awake,” Thelma says. Moments like that — perfect filmic moments that combine spare dialogue, scenery, and movement — explain how Callie Khouri’s script earned such praise.
How can such a story end? After all this time the ending still feels precarious. On the one hand, the implausibly sympathetic detective (Harvey Keitel) screams at the FBI, “How many times do they have to be fucked over?” — a line that rings as false as it did 20 years ago. On the other hand there’s that kiss, which still feels as radical as it did in 1991. As they sit in the Thunderbird knowing that there are only two (bad) options, and Thelma says, “Let’s keep going,” their kiss becomes a statement of mutual love that has gone beyond the usual worldly confines of sex or friendship.
Ultimately that’s why Thelma and Louise has the reputation it does: not for the ham-fisted opening act, or even for Brad Pitt’s abs while he wields a hair dryer like a pistol, but for the way the film sheds its skin to become something we’ve never seen before.
It’s not worth our time comparing this to other female buddy pictures because this defined one side of the field — it starts out with clichés from the domineering husband to the rape scene to the corny-funny lines (Thelma aiming a gun at a guy: “My husband wasn’t sweet to me, and look how I turned out”), but it transcends them to do something that still confounds description. Even as it gestures to the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it also does something that men’s Westerns never could.
Before and after. Perhaps this is not only the quintessential female buddy picture, but also the greatest makeover movie in history.