‘Thelma & Louise’ is the under appreciated gem of road movies — Ultimate Movie Year

“Thelma & Louise”
Released May 24, 1991
Directed by Ridley Scott
Where to Watch

Two buddies hitting the road together, beginning a crime spree that sees them on the run from the law, is the kind of movie that has been celebrated since the days of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” But what makes this one movie stand out is that for the first time, the buddies are women, and their rebellion against the rules is given a fresh perspective.

“Thelma & Louise” became one of the most talked-about movies of 1991 because of what it represented in the culture. Fortunately, it also happens to be an excellent film as well.

Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) are best friends, ready to begin a weekend cabin trip together. Thelma is sweet and naive, Louise is sensible and stubborn, but their relationship is the most consistent and supportive of their lives. Thelma’s husband (Christopher McDonald) has a disposition that ranges from asshole at worst and jackass at best. Louise is unmarried and engaging casually with Jimmy (Michael Madsen), one of those respectful relationships, but neither partner has defined exactly what it is.

On their way out of town, the women stop at a country bar for drinks and fun. Thelma has too many drinks and begins flirting with one of the men at the bar. When Louise goes to the bathroom, the man gets Thelma out of the bar and assaults her in the parking lot, intending to rape her. Louise finds them, and holding a gun Thelma brought on the trip, shoots and kills the man. Realizing nobody would buy their side of the story, the women go on the run, headed toward Mexico.

The crime brings in Arkansas State Police investigator Hal (Harvey Keitel, doing much of the “NOT ALL MEN” work in this movie), who begins to piece together what’s happening with the women. It isn’t long before the FBI gets involved, with Stephen Tobolowsky playing the lead agent. Now that’s a guy who looks familiar; where do we know him from …

The impact in “Thelma & Louise” comes in how it examines the power and status in relationships between men and women. As the women wisely deduce, they would be likely blamed for everything, including flirting, drinking, and even what they’re wearing, that lead up to Thelma’s assault. Both characters realize that the expectations men have of women are far more restrictive and consequential than the other way around. It’s one of the reasons why Thelma and Louise can surprise their antagonists and pursuers again and again: the men here never even consider that these women could be capable of defending and standing up for themselves. At one point, a state trooper pulls the women over but is caught flat-footed when Thelma pulls a gun on him. Another moment occurs when a trucker, who has been vulgarly insulting the women on the road, continues to assume he can say anything he wants to Thelma and Louise.

It’s also the first time in their lives where the women feel liberated from the roles society gave to them. Louise remains the sensible one through, carefully weighing each critical decision, but Thelma blossoms for the first time in her life once she’s free of her previous life. When Louise’s plans for freedom backfire, it’s Thelma who takes control for the first time in the movie, becoming the support Louise provided for her all of this time. The women mention that something has awoken in them and that they have a knack for this lifestyle. As they travel the American southwest landscape, they discover the kind of freedom that the explorers and cowboys had a century earlier. It adds an extra dimension to the traditional road movie dynamic because this time, the characters don’t begin feeling unfulfilled; they’re actively oppressed.

The other surprise is how funny the movie is. McDonald’s doofus character is a consistent source for laughs after Thelma leaves him. Hal is one of the most self-aware characters in the film (and serves as an audience identification touchpoint for men watching the movie). His reactions to the inane people he deals with are unexpected and delightful in each of those scenes.

Another significant feature of the movie is that it marks the breakthrough role for one of the biggest movie stars of the past 30 years, Mr. Brad Pitt. He plays JD, a drifter ex-con who wanders into the movie sporting a Canadian tuxedo and shaky accent but still catches the eye of Thelma.

While he would undoubtedly grow to become a better actor, much of Pitt’s historical appeal can be found in the short moments he appears in “Thelma & Louise.” He’s notably handsome (especially with his shirt off), but any male model can say the same. It’s the captivating, charismatic blend of charm and mischief that makes Pitt a superstar on screen. A pure form of that persona debuts with “Thelma & Louise,” but Pitt would continue to refine and experiment with it over his career, becoming the kind of star that everybody can root for, no matter how effortlessly good-looking he is.

“Thelma & Louise” was the brainchild of screenwriter Callie Khouri, who dreamed up the premise on her way home from work.

“Out of nowhere, I thought, ‘Two women go on a crime spree,’” Khouri told Vanity Fair in 2011. “That one sentence! I felt the character arcs — I saw the whole movie.”

Khouri’s screenplay caught the eye of director Ridley Scott, who agreed to produce. However, a long production delay and inability to find a director to work on the project forced Scott’s hand into the chair for “Thelma & Louise.” By that point, the movie had gone through a few combinations of lead actresses, including Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster, before committing to production with Davis and Sarandon in the lead roles.

“I saw what was unique about it immediately,” Scott said in 2011. “Women tended to get parts as somebody’s girlfriend; this was about no one else but them. It had substance, it had a voice, and it had a great outcome, which you could never change. Their decision was courageous, to carry on the journey and not give in.”

“Thelma & Louise” opened on a highly competitive Memorial Day weekend in fourth place with a $6.1 box office gross. The movie did manage to hang onto much of its audience week after week, concluding its first run in theaters two months later with a $45.3 domestic total gross.

It was also a cultural flashpoint because of its focus on rebellious, law-breaking women (I don’t recall the previous year’s “Goodfellas” catching that kind of flack, but whatevs). Critics, pundits, and audiences had a somewhat mixed reaction to “Thelma & Louise” at the time, but today, it has an 85 percent “Certified Fresh” approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

“More than anything I’ve seen in a long time, ‘Thelma & Louise’ makes me think of the old New World pictures with their populist blend of politics, humor, and off-the-cuff pacing,” wrote Marjorie Baumgarten in the Austin Chronicle. “And the fact that Sarandon and Davis are nothing short of perfect in their characterizations also contributes to your wanting to take this movie home and put it under your pillow at night. This is a movie to love, that touches you in places you never suspected, that shows you that the road less traveled is the road to your dreams.”

The movie was recognized the following year at the Academy Awards, picking six nominations and one Oscar with Khouri winning for Best Original Screenplay. Davis and Sarandon both received Best Actress nominations for their performances here, but ironically lost to one of the actresses who was originally attached to the movie: Jodie Foster for “The Silence of the Lambs.” Scott was also nominated for Best Director.

“Thelma & Louise,” like so many pre-2000 movies that didn’t become a franchise, is falling in danger of being forgotten as one of the best genre movies of the 90s. It shouldn’t, because few movies can tell such a complete, entertaining, and unique story for two hours. I’m sure if “Thelma & Louise” had men in the lead roles, it would get the kind of cultural attention something like “Fight Club” has, but it would lose what makes the movie unique. This buddy road movie shares many similarities with one of the originals, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” but with its powerful theme of feminist transformation, “Thelma & Louise” stands as a worthy successor.

At the Box Office: Before Marvel superheroes pushed the beginning of the movie summer to the first weekend of May, Memorial Day weekend was one of the most significant dates of the year for Hollywood studios and multiplex frequenters. “Thelma & Louise” was one of several major movies with high expectations released during the extended holiday.

Coming in at first place was Ron Howard’s “Backdraft,” a high stakes blockbuster drama about firefighters with an all-star cast, including Kurt Russell, Robert De Niro, and Donald Sutherland. The movie grossed $15.7 million in its opening frame, en route to a total box office haul of $152.4 million worldwide.

Just behind “Backdraft” was last week’s major new release, “What About Bob?” with a strong second week gross of $11.2 million. In third place was another significant new release, “Hudson Hawk,” a comedy action film co-written and starring Bruce Willis as a sarcastic cat burglar. Thanks to the star-power of Willis, expectations were sky-high for “Hawk” and immediately deflated with its debut gross of only $7 million for the weekend. “Hawk” soon disappeared from movie theaters and became a notorious bomb, finishing its original run with a total of $17.2 million in sales.

After “Thelma & Louise,” in fifth place was the John Candy comedy, “Only the Lonely,” making its debut with a nearly $6 million gross. Other new movies this week included the cult favorite, “Drop Dead Fred,” “Straight Out of Brooklyn,” and “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.”

In the News: You can tell feminism was a hot topic in the United States at this moment, as the top-rated television show of the week was the CBS sitcom, “Murphy Brown;” On the other hand, in a 5–4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban on family planning clinics funded with federal money discussing abortion options with their patients; Michael Jordan was named the NBA’s regular-season MVP, just as his Chicago Bulls finally put away their rivals, the Detroit Pistons, with a sweep in the conference finals. Some Pistons starters, including star Isiah Thomas, walked off the court before the clinching game concluded; The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Minnesota North Stars four games to two to win the NHL’s Stanley Cup; Mariah Carey topped the Billboard charts with her single, “I Don’t Wanna Cry.”

Next Week: “Soapdish”

Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on May 21, 2021.

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