|Director: Ridley Scott
|Screenplay: Callie Khouri
|Stars: Susan Sarandon (Louise), Geena Davis (Thelma), Harvey Keitel (Hal), Michael Madsen (Jimmy), Christopher McDonald (Darryl), Stephen Tobolowsky (Max), Brad Pitt (J.D.), Timothy Carhart (Harlan), Lucinda Jenney (Lena, the Waitress), Jason Beghe (State Trooper), Sonny Carl Davis (Albert)
|MPAA Rating: R
|Year of Release: 1991
Not very many films have been featured on the cover of Time magazine. Lots of movie stars have graced the cover of the weekly news publication over the years—Orson Welles, Groucho Marx, Judy Garland, John Wayne, Grace Kelly, Kevin Costner—but not very many films. In fact, it appears that the first time the magazine featured a specific film on the front cover was the December 8, 1967, issue with Bonnie & Clyde as the representative film of “The New Hollywood” and its emphasis on “violence … sex … art.” Subsequent films featured on the cover included Jaws (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), Stars Wars (1977), and Platoon (1986)—all major cultural events, for better or for worse.
Thus, it means something that the cover of the June 24, 1991, issue prominently featured Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis with the bold suggestion that the text on the pages within would answer the cover’s headline: “Why Thelma & Louise Strikes a Nerve.” Because strike a nerve it had. Released just a month earlier, Thelma & Louise proved to be an immediately and intensely divisive film, riling up very public debates about feminism(s), the depiction of men and women on screen, and the nature of vigilantism. Many of those who cheered Charles Bronson plugging criminals in Death Wish (1974) looked for pearls to clutch when they saw two women doing the same thing. Meanwhile, some women lamented that their big-screen surrogates were an overworked waitress and an immature housewife, both trapped in dead-end relationships with miserable men, while others cheered on their evolution from emotionally (and later physically) battered victims to take-charge renegades. In U.S. News & World Report, columnist John Leo called the film a “paean to transformative violence … An explicit fascist theme,” while columnist Margaret Carlson in Time bemoaned the fact that the film lacked a “feminist sensibility,” leading her to wonder if first-time screenwriter Callie Khouri wasn’t “just fronting for Hugh Hefner.” There were celebrations, as well, with numerous high-profile critics singing its praises and the Academy bestowing Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Screenplay (which Khouri won). It was truly a controversial film—in all the best ways.
Looking back at the response to Thelma & Louise, what strikes one is how those who rejected it did so because it didn’t meet their specific expectation of what a feminist, outlaw, road movie should be. The fact that such a thing literally didn’t exist until Thelma & Louise invented it was given lip service in these harangues, but hardly the appreciation earned by a film that broke so many rules while playing so deeply within the Hollywood playbook. Of course, for some that means “sell-out,” but quite the opposite is true: One of the hardest accomplishments is to make a film that colors both inside and outside the lines equally well, which is precisely what Thelma & Louise does. It takes the broad parameters of a number of well-worn, male-dominated genres, notably the Western and the buddy movie, and turns them on their head, deriving all manner of pleasure and pain from both its close adherence to the tradition and its constant inversions of what those traditions signify.
The film’s eponymous protagonists, the world-weary Louise (Susan Sarandon) and the naïve Thelma (Geena Davis), set off in the film’s opening sequence on a weekend getaway to the mountains. Mainly, they are wanting to get away from the men in their lives: Louise’s musician boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen), who is always on the road and refuses to commit to anything serious, and Thelma’s smarmy car salesman husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald), whose only real concerns are sports, his hair, and his dinner. Riding in Louise’s teal ’66 convertible Thunderbird (a bit of a stretch given her financial situation, but it looks great on screen), they have nothing but good times ahead of them. Or so they think. Thelma’s giddy desire to stop off at a rowdy honkytonk ends in bloodshed when the skeevy pick-up artist (Timothy Carhart) who gets her drunk and then tries to rape her in the parking lot ends up on the receiving end of Louise’s pistol (actually, it is Thelma’s pistol given to her by Darryl, but she has no idea what to do with it, so she leaves it in Louise’s care). Rightfully recognizing that they won’t be believed by the authorities, Louise rejects Thelma’s plea that they go to the police and instead decides to withdraw all her savings and head for Mexico.
At this point, the film turns into an extended cross-country chase, with Thelma and Louise heading from Arkansas to Mexico, but without going through Texas because something horrible happened to Louise in the Lone Star State that she refuses to divulge. There are detours along the way—Louise spends a night with Jimmy, who shows up unexpectedly in Oklahoma City, while Thelma falls under the spell of JD (Brad Pitt), a handsome and charming hitchhiker. Meanwhile, they are being doggedly pursued by an FBI agent (Harvey Keitel) who sets up camp in Darryl and Thelma’s house, hoping to get a trace on any call she makes home. The extent of the chase is marked in Thelma and Louise’s increasingly burned skin, wild hair, and willingness to break rules to ensure not just their freedom, but their very survival. Along the way, an interesting thing happens: Thelma and Louise essentially trade places, as Thelma becomes bolder and more provocative while Louise becomes more reluctant and concerned. By the time all is said and done, Thelma has robbed a convenience store, they have locked a bullying state trooper (Jason Beghe) in the trunk of his own car, and they have blown up the tanker truck of a lecherous trucker (Sonny Carl Davis) who embodies literally every odious male characteristic imaginable.
Of course, the proliferation of odious male characters was central to the film’s controversy, as many who found it off-putting labeled it “man-hating.” Thelma & Louise arrived in theaters at a unique flash point in America’s gender wars, as it coincided with the publication of Susan Faludi’s polarizing Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women and the popularization of right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh’s term “feminazi” to describe women he and others like him found threatening. The film’s inversion of traditional male-female power dynamics caught a lot of viewers off-guard, and many male viewers struggled with the position (one with which women were long accustomed) of having almost no characters on screen with whom they felt comfortable identifying. The parking lot rapist? The charming, underhanded criminal? The unctuous, philandering husband? The self-absorbed musician boyfriend? The lewd trucker? The only nominally decent male character on screen is Keitel’s Hal, who is professional in his determination to fulfill his duties as a law enforcement officer, but also clearly sees through what is happening and recognizes Thelma and Louise for what they are: two otherwise decent people who have gotten in over their heads and have the world stacked against them. Unlike everyone else who wants to either use them or hurt them, Hal wants to help them.
So, it was all too easy for uncomfortable male viewers to throw self-defensive barbs, rather than allowing the film to help them recognize how one-sided most Hollywood films are. Violence in male hands is so common as to be taken for granted, which is why it feels radical when placed in the hands of women. This doesn’t mean that the film simply gender-reverses violence; rather, it forces us to see and better understand the narrative and thematic mechanisms through which it typically works by defamiliarizing it. Director Ridley Scott, taking a break from the realms of history (The Duelists), fantasy (Legend) and science fiction (Alien, Blade Runner) that had dominated his career up until then, provides a sure hand that balances visual grandeur with emotional realism. Scott is first and foremost a stylist, and he and cinematographer Adrian Biddle (Aliens, The Princess Bride) turn Thelma & Louise’s sun-baked, dust-coated Western vistas into a world unto themselves. Yet, some of best work in the film is the acting (both Sarandon and Davis were nominated for Oscars), which belies the criticism that Scott is primarily a visual stylist.
The very fact that Thelma & Louise became such a cultural flashpoint and has persisted to this day is evidence of the power of Callie Khouri’s script, which balances action and drama and humor while always foregrounding the centrality of its complex female protagonists. The film simply works, whether you love it or hate it. I find it compelling and engrossing, and it challenges me every time I watch it to consider the predominance of male privilege both in the real and cinematic worlds. Which brings me to the conclusion that, in the end, the problem many had with Thelma & Louise rested primarily on their misunderstanding of what the film was saying. They wanted it to provide answers to age-old quandaries and didn’t like what they perceived those answers to be. But, that is precisely the wrong way to approach the film. Thelma & Louise is a film that poses questions and explores them, but ultimately offers no answers, no solutions. After all, how could it? As Spike Lee said about his polarizing masterpiece Do the Right Thing (1989) a few years earlier, “It isn’t the job of movie makers to offer solutions. All we can do is to present the problems.”
|Thelma & Louise Criterion Collection 4K UHD + Blu-ray
|English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
|Audio commentary by director Ridley ScottAudio commentary by screenwriter Callie Khouri and stars Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon“Ridley Scott: Beginnings” featuretteBoy on a Bicycle short film “Ploughman” television commercial Video interview with Callie KhouriThelma & Louise: The Last Journey retrospective documentaryOriginal theatrical featurette Extended scenes Storyboards: The Final Scene Storyboards Deleted scenes Original Theatrical Trailer “Wanted” TV Spot “Call of the Wild” TV Spot TV Promo Spot“Part of Me, Part of You” music video
|The Criterion Collection
|May 30, 2023
|It has been 12 years since Thelma & Louise was released on Blu-ray for its 20th Anniversary in 2011, so Criterion’s new 4K UHD/Blu-ray set is, if anything, overdue. The new transfer comes from the original 35mm camera negative and was supervised by director Ridley Scott, so it is pretty hard to argue that this is anything but definitive. The HEVC H.265 encode with Dolby Vision HDR is about as good as it gets, with stellar detail, depth, and contrast that maintains an excellent filmlike appearance with plenty of grain and texture that looks superb in motion. The color palette is bold and intense, especially when the sun is setting or Scott is training his camera on the natural beauty of the desert southwest. There are plenty of scenes set in relatively mundane locations—motel rooms, living rooms, police stations, and the like—but cinematographer Adrian Biddle, who got his start in British commercial work with Scott, makes them pop and gives them a distinctly cinematic aura. The newly mixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack, which was remastered from the original LCRS magnetic track, is also excellent, with good separation, depth, and surround effects that give the chase sequences a nice kick, but also benefits Hans Zimmer’s distinctive soundtrack.
The supplements range far and wide, combining new material with a great deal of extras that were included on previous DVD and Blu-ray releases. There are two first-rate audio commentaries, one with director Ridley Scott that was originally recorded way back in 1996, and one with screenwriter Callie Khouri and stars Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon that was recorded in 2001. Both tracks are worth a listen and provide a great deal of insight into the film’s genesis and production, although the Khouri/Davis/Sarandon track is a bit more fun if only because the three of them were recorded together. Also from previous releases is Thelma & Louise: The Last Journey, a 60-minute retrospective documentary produced in 2001. Divided into three parts—“Conception,” “Production,” and “Reaction and Resonance”—it makes good use of then-new interviews with Scott, Khouri, Sarandon, and Davis, as well as stars Brad Pitt, Christopher McDonald, Michael Madsen, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Jason Beghe; composer Hans Zimmer; and producer Mimi Polk Gitlin. It is replete with great production stories, production stills and behind-the-scenes footage, and even some deleted material, including some of the notorious footage shot for Pitt and Davis’s sex scene. Also here is an original 5-minute promotional featurette, storyboards for the final chase that use split screen to compare the storyboards with footage from the film, a trailer and several television spots, and the music video for Glenn Frey’s “Part of Me, Part of You.” We also get a good look at material that didn’t make it into the film, including six extended scenes, one of which is the end of the film that offers optional commentary by Scott on why they cut it the way they did; and 10 deleted scenes (most of which are quite short and clearly unneeded). There are some new supplements, as well, including a 20-minute video interview with Khouri and a section on Ridley Scott’s early career. This section includes a 22-minute discussion between Scott and film critic Scott Foundas about the director’s beginnings in the commercial film industry and several samples of his early work: the 28-minute short film Boy on a Bicycle starring his brother, filmmaker Tony Scott, and “Ploughman,” a famous beer commercial he directed. The beautifully designed 32-page insert booklet contains essays by Jessica Kiang, Rachel Syme, and Rebecca Traister that provide contrasting approaches to understanding this complex and divisive film.
Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick
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