RogerBW's Blog

Thelma & Louise (1991) 13 March 2022

1991 drama, dir. Ridley Scott, Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis; IMDb / allmovie. It was just supposed to be a weekend trip to a cabin in the mountains…

This could have been a double act by Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand. Or Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. Or Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster (who left after production delays to go off and star in a multiple-Oscar-winner instead). I'm greedy; I'd really like to have seen all those versions.

Everything that happens here comes from character, as a good plot should. Louise knows (correctly or not) that she won't be believed if she says she was acting in self-defence; I'm not an Arkansas lawyer but I can't see this going lower than manslaughter ("causing the death of another person under circumstances that would be murder, except the offender causes the death under the influence of an extreme emotional disturbance for which there is a reasonable excuse") if the truth came to light (Harlan was, after all, not continuing to attack at the moment she shot him). Louise is the worldly-wise one of the pair: she's lived as a woman on her own in the rural hell they come from. She knows about degrees of sin, what you can come back from and what you can't.

On the other hand, Thelma has always kept the bargain before: she puts up with her husband's absences, she has dinner on the table, she does what she's told, and in return she's got the notional protection of that position as a "good woman". (While watching this I felt sure that she had gone straight from father to husband without ever living on her own, and sure enough that's made explicit later.) So for her there are no degrees of sin: since she's slipped once, like the sort of Calvinist for whom the sin is in taking the first drink, she is now a Bad Person and she might as well go all the way to the bottom; dance with a guy, sleep with a guy, rob a store at gunpoint.

And so it's Thelma who keeps them going while Louise works hastily through her I-just-shot-someone and my-life-is-over stress to get back to something like practicality; and it's Louise who keeps them going when Thelma messes up and trusts someone she shouldn't. (If Heathers taught us anything, it's "never trust a handsome guy called JD".) Those twisting and crossing emotional arcs are the heart of the film for me.

Of course it's all going to end badly. In its way this is as conventionally moralistic as a mystery story: a bad thing has been done, and balance will be restored to society when the person who did the bad thing is removed from it. But this film's genius, as in Do The Right Thing, is to show us how and why they did the things they did.

(There are two endings that didn't get used. At one point Scott had Louise shoving Thelma out of the car just before the cliff – which strikes me as a betrayal of both their characters. By my reckoning it's Thelma who has departed from anything like normal life and can never go back; if anything she should have been pushing Louise out. The original filmed ending followed the car all the way to the bottom of the canyon, then shifted back to Detective Hal looking sad, but the studio found this too downbeat, so it was cut to the freeze-frame version – we still know what's going to happen, but it doesn't have to be shown.)

The visual grammar is of the desert road movie… but at first the scenery is constantly interrupted by man-made things, trucks, trains, crop dusters, and so on; it's only towards the end that the protagonists really get away at last.

Really the only mis-step for me is the soundtrack: I Don't Wanna Play House is the perfect cue of course, but at several other moments it gets quite intrusive. I shouldn't be noticing the attempts to set up a particular atmosphere.

Female critics mostly liked this film; men tended to regard it as "anti-man". I see it as more "pro-woman". Though of course if you reckon a gain for one must be a loss for the other, that may feel like the same thing.

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

See also:
Do The Right Thing (1989)

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