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You know, the one thing I can’t figure out is whether these girls are real smart or just real, real lucky?

Movie

Thelma & Louise
(1991)

 

The stuff of a thousand spoofs, I’ve always had the lurking feeling Thelma & Louise lent itself to such treatment so immediately because Ridley Scott fashioned a film expressly intent on mythmaking. And also that, in the absence of readily available alternatives in populist, female empowerment cinema, the picture was seized on as instant classic, when Callie Khouri’s screenplay is a little too schematic for that, and Scott too transparent in his influences. As such, the positives in Thelma & Louise’s enduring legacy rest most heavily on the Best Actress Oscar-nominated performances of its leads.

In terms of its director’s oeuvre, Thelma & Louise is almost entirely atypical.  It might be the most “written” picture he has made, one where the demands of the screenplay don’t grant him the leeway to fashion a prevailing world around its protagonists (which is not to say he doesn’t take full advantage of the road trip scenery – the landscape “is the third big character in the movie” – or invest the soundtrack, unhappily, with a cavalcade of country and western songs; when Hans Zimmer isn’t herding us towards anthemic uplift, that is). It’s refreshing that he’s required to fixate so fully on the characters, but it makes for a different feel to even his previous couple of crime genre pictures, where there were more gaps for him to fill with mood (or posturing).

Of course, as a director, Scott has made a career from half-arsed scripts – despite everyone telling us it’s all about story with him; yeah, just not very good story – with not especially notable characters. Thelma & Louise at very least has strong, memorable signature characters, from the central duo to the parade of male peripheries, ranging from broad-as-can-be to subtly nuanced. The plotting itself is more contrived, since the premise is to mould a mythic crime feature; you can feel the grinding of gears at times, or at very least the over-wilfulness with which Scott and Khouri strive to make this the case (“Something’s crossed over in me. I can’t go back”).

That’s not necessarily a demerit – more than enough male-centric features have done similar – but you’re made very aware of the genre straddling that’s going on, from straight drama to broad comedy to generic crime movie. It’s as if, once Louise has crossed the line and killed Harlan (Timothy Carhart), the picture is forced to retreat from its approximation of realism, yet isn’t quite sure how to support this tentative manoeuvre or how full-blown its plunge into fantasy should be (if Khouri was concerned that people “don’t understand metaphor anymore” the root maybe that the picture plays fast and loose with its footing).

You have Scott’s gloss to merge the disparate elements together, but I wonder if Khouri herself mightn’t have done a more cohesive job. Which isn’t to say Thelma & Louise doesn’t remain one of Scott’s superior pictures. Only that, in terms of servicing the story, it had the potential to be a less distractingly polished piece (I could also see the recently deceased Jonathan Demme coming up trumps with the material). There’s sometimes a sense Khouri worked backwards to get her characters to the point of iconic status, and the joins sometimes show; Thelma and Louise’s “odyssey” as Scott puts it, doesn’t feel organic, and much as he makes it visually of-a-piece, tonally he’s at least partially responsible for its jumpiness.

DarrylJesus Christ!
MaxGood God.
HalMy lord.

Certainly, he was the one demanding the injection of more comedy into the proceedings: “I said, ‘There’s really a lot of funny shit in the movie – you should not let that go.’ I’m not sure Callie got his initially; she was going a little more seriously”. Which is ironic, as the last thing you think of Scott is his being good at comedy (he cast Russell Crowe as Hugh Grant in A Good Year, for goodness sake).

And yet, he comes up with the very funny goods repeatedly here, from a succession of male caricatures. There’s Christopher McDonald’s moronic husband Darryl –slipping over workmen, having a rant while Hal observes, amused, that “Sir, you’re standing in your pizza”, and worried he’ll have to pay for his phone to be wiretapped. There’s lecherous trucker Albert (Sonny Carl Davis), whose truck is destroyed in punishment for his lewdness. Jason Beghe’s state trooper is reduced to a snivelling wreck when threatened at gunpoint (Beghe improved this, and McDonald improv’d too, as did Brad Pitt and Harvey Keitel – a lot of improv going on here). Hal (Keitel) and his cohorts impel Darryl to turn the TV back to Serenade. Max (Stephen Tobolowsky) watches Thelma’s holdup video while eating a burger like he’s at the movies. And then there’s the Rastafarian cyclist (Noel L Walcott III), a spur-of-the-moment idea on Scott’s part (he saw Walcott on the way to set) that gets perhaps the biggest laugh in the picture.

LouiseIn the future, when a woman’s crying like that, she isn’t having fun.

The question might be whether all that comedy is germane, however. Scott’s argument was that “Comedies are more powerful cos they don’t shut off half the audience… You want the males to listen. You want them to eat crow. Because every male in that movie is damaged goods”. It’s debatable whether his canniness actually paid off (the movie was a modest sleeper hit, and instantly got feted/labelled feminist, so probably didn’t attract a great deal of men on the basis of its chucklesomeness). His thinking was in terms of audience and demographics, and marketing (anyone reading the IMDB’s Trivia section should take the entry on this movie with a pinch of salt; it didn’t get written until 1988 but has Scott commissioning Khouri in 1980).

And, while Sir Ridders stuck to his guns in retaining the downbeat ending, he all but neuters it by cutting the mood too quickly (compare it to the masterfully sustained contemplation of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, on which this less potently riffs). Roger Ebert was quite right to call the edit out; the way the fade goes straight into a clips montage of happier times suggests the fear of leaving viewers on a downer, of digesting that Thelma and Louise really are dead. It’s a symptom of a director losing his nerve.

Sarandon considered that “going off the cliff was a romantic device” and she’s right. It marks the picture as an empowerment fantasy, one in which its characters can’t be fettered or held back by the various patriarchal structures and personifications they encounter, none of whom are worthy, except maybe Keitel’s cop (Pitt’s JD’s a thief, even Michael Madsen’s Jimmy, after saying he wouldn’t, tells the police what he knows). But Khouri commented of the movie, “If you’re looking for a feminist manifesto, you will be disappointed” and of criticism of irresponsibility said “… they’re not meant to be heroines. They’re anti-heroes”.

But when she says of the key scene “Bad guys get killed in every goddam movie that gets made… that guy was the bad guy and he got killed. It was only because a woman did it that there was any controversy” she’s being slightly disingenuous, and only partially correct, as it also goes back to the thorny territory of genre boundaries. Thelma & Louise isn’t simply an outlaw movie with women; it can’t quite fly away because it has its feet in the reality its protagonists start in. It’s only later that it detours into a less responsible string of wish fulfilments. Such as shagging the hunky man of your dreams (“You finally got laid properly. That’s so sweet” just after an attempted rape – “It’s her choice to do that, isn’t it?” was Khouri’s response, a curious response, as the buck stops with the writer when it comes to motivation). And getting your own back on the “beaver” trucker. Oh, and committing armed robbery as if you were born to it.

LouiseThere’s no such thing as justifiable robbery.

Indeed, while Louise’s character remains grounded throughout, it’s only really due to Davis that Thelma doesn’t seem faintly ridiculous, going fully Bonnie and Clyde with admissions of self-discovery (“It was like I’d been doing it all my life. I know it’s crazy, but I just feel I’ve got a knack for this”). Davis essays the journey from giddy scatterbrain to focussed and assured with complete conviction, while Sarandon invests a world-weariness that is utterly genuine, and carries the picture through its more fanciful interludes. The male characters, meanwhile, are all confirmations of the biases of the female ones (with the audience surrogate, Hal, carefully imposed to take the edge of their plunge).

JDWell now, I’ve always believed that done properly, armed robbery doesn’t have to be a totally unpleasant experience.

This was also the movie that made Brad, of course; Scott references the hairdryer scene as “the beginning of Brad Pitt! Bingo!” but what’s most noticeable in retrospect is how dedicated and pre-starry the performance is, whilst also being a star turn.* He and Davis have as easy chemistry as Sarandon and Madsen.

If it’s Sarandon and Davis who elevate Thelma & Louise, there’s never a chance of them stopping Ridley Scott imprinting himself on it. Just look at those lines of police cars, the conspicuous rain in sunshine (cos it looks cool) and the many stunning driving shots through the vast open expanses. And the great pursuit at the end, much imitated (with Hal running in slow motion). Plus, with Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack, it set a marker for the director and his brother going forward (Tony’s next movie would be the also Badlands-influenced True Romance, which judges its tone much better than Thelma & Louise, probably because it’s veryclear on its genre).

Black Rain saw his first tentative steps, but Thelma & Louise is the first outright “slick” Ridley Scott movie, and would fit happily in with any of his post-Gladiator product. Except that it’s better written than any of them, The Counsellor maybe excepted; tonally and structurally, Khouri’s screenplay has its issues, but in dialogue terms, Thelma & Louise is one of the sharpest things Scott has made (probably only Blade Runner bests it). It’s ironic then, that I’m not sold on whether Ridley should have stepped up to direct, or encouraged Khouri to make changes; his input meant it had over-invested its milieu before it was even released, in a slightly too affected way, sugaring its serio-pulp pill.

*Addendum 12/09/22: Sir Ridders was instrumental in landing a number on inverted stars with plumb big-screen roles, although that may have been more by circumstance than design.

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