Thelma & Louise must have seemed truly visionary for women who watched it in 1991, since Callie Khouri’s screenplay still seems ahead of its time, yearning towards a feminist Hollywood that never really eventuated. The story centres on the two title characters – Thelma, a housewife, played by Geena Davis, and Louise, a waitress, played by Susan Sarandon. We never learn how these two became friends, and we don’t even learn that much about their friendship before we’re propelled, along with them, on a two-day road trip to escape their dreary lives in Arkansas. From the very beginning this feels like a line of flight from patriarchy, thanks in large part to Thelma’s toxic husband Darryl, played by Christopher MacDonald, a control freak who stands for everything trying to keep these two women in the same place.
As soon as they hit the road, Thelma confesses to Louise that she’s likely to get a beating when she returns home. Yet this just propels them to seek out some positive masculinity along the way – and, if they can’t find that, some good old-fashioned fun. They seem to find both on their first roadside stop – a country bar, where they meet Harlan, a stranger, on the dancefloor. Harlan is chivalrious and charming, the epitome of country courtliness, and a perfect gentleman when he dances with Thelma. He’s also an institution at the bar, which makes him seem more trustworthy. Finally, he’s very good-looking, so it’s a no-brainer that Thelma is attracted to him, although she ends up drinking too much to want to take it further.
At this point, Harlan’s demeanour completely changes. The perfect gentleman now turns into a rapist, forcing himself upon Thelma in the parking lot, and drooling on her naked skin as he takes his time with her. Coming upon the scene, Louise pulls out a pistol, and shoots Harlan after the event, when he throws a couple of parting misogynistic barbs back at her and Thelma. He dies on the spot, and this sets the rest of the film in motion. On the one hand, the crime is a statement of purpose – it’s notable that this isn’t technically an act of self-defence, but an intentional riposte to Harlan’s misogynistic entitlement. On the other hand, Louise realises they have to hit the road quickly and never look back, since date rape doesn’t exist as a category, let alone a legal justification for manslaughter, in the American consciousness.
This sets the scene for a profoundly feminist road movie. Not only does a paragon of courtliness turn out to conceal a rapist, but Thelma and Louise have to keep on fleeing a world that is never going to accept a woman’s side of the story. Louise tells Thelma that “we just don’t live in that kind of world,” meaning that they have to remake the world with each fresh stage in their road trip. In the opening scenes of the film, Thelma and Louise exuded a restless energy that seemed go above and beyond their own particular banalities. In this date rape, they find a crime, and an experience, commensurate to their drive to escape patriarchy, to the point where they already seem to have been fleeing it pre-emptive in those early scenes.
The rest of the film continues this propulsive movement, as Thelma and Louise brim with an unbridled energy that’s always on the brink of becoming self-destructive. From hereon out, the action never strays too far from the road, which is nearly always audible in the background, visible through motel and restaurant windows, or viscerally present in the ebb and flow of bodies from one transitory space to the next. There’s constant music in the background too, as if the whole film is unfolding to the car radio – or as if Scott kept one of his microphones trained on the car radio on the rare occasions when the action left the road.
Almost immediately, this road trip displaces its destination, since the road is part and parcel of the film’s feminist crisis. During New Hollywood, the open road was a privileged site for films about masculinity in crisis, and Thelma & Louise draws heavily on that tradition, right down to its title, which references Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde, the film that is often designated as the start of New Hollywood. Time and again, these films presented the open road as a place where men could regain some semblance of autonomy – or where men had to overcome the greatest threats to their autonomy. Some of that anxiety carries over into Thelma & Louise as well. To take just one example, Louise’s boyfriend, Jimmy Lennox, played by Michael Madsen, eventually locates her by pretending that he’s purchasing a car. The film is faced with a paradox – the women are safest in their car, yet the car presumes a male optic.
For that reason, Ridley Scott focuses less on the car and more on the interface between the car and road, which is where the main line of flight occurs in the film. Thelma and Louise often have to get in and out of the car abruptly, while their story is full of rapid pivots and shifts in direction, whether it’s veering off the road to avoid the cops, or circling back around to pick up J.D., a hitch-hiker played by Brad Pitt, in his first major role. These manic swerves are mirrored in the rainbow flares that careen across the screen, the first of which occurs just after Thelma and Louise are fleeing the date rape scene, when they lurch back into the road.
In that sense, Thelma & Louise offers a line of flight from the road itself, transcending the trope of the road through the road, and thereby opening up a new kind of porosity – a radical interface between car, road and world. This ushers in a series of volatile slipstreams, disturbances and turbulences that evoke great cosmic flows of time and space. In one scene, Thelma and Louise converse as an enormous train trundles right past their car. In another, they sing along to the radio while waving to a crop duster as it takes off beside them, before Scott cuts to a POV shot from the same plane as its shadow passes over the car on the road below, while the rainbow flare from the rape scene recurs in even more flamboyant colours.
As that suggests, Scott’s kinetic camera is also caught up in this cosmic slipstream. Whereas New Hollywood road films conflated the camera with the windscreen, Scott tends to dissociate it, instead opting for jarring close-ups inside the car that emphasise the precarious proximity of other vehicles. When we do look through the windscreen, the image is never serene, stately or panoptic – the view changes too quickly, as does the film’s point of focus. As a result, the camera is never quite inside or outside the car, but identifies with the interface between car and world, which Scott captures in a series of tyre-level tracking shots that trace the whole length of the car while it is in motion. These movements are then folded into a series of volatile overtaking scenes – from a truck driver, a motorcyclist, and from other cars.
After a while, this slipstream is rarefied and intensified to an ambience that percolates every part of the film. There’s always a breeze or a heat haze kicking sand, dirt and tumbleweed across Scott’s mise-en-scenes, while the distant windmills and derricks propel particles into every conceivable corner of the car. The interiors are always smoky too, suffused with a viscous, treacly, sticky spatiality that is gradually baked into the palette of the film, situating us in an indefinite haze between the 70s and the 90s, just as Scott gravitates towards those aspects of roadside America that are still situated in the 70s, in the New Hollywood present.
This volatile motion offsets any sense of linear westward expansion. While Thelma and Louise are ostensibly heading from Arkansas to Mexico, they can’t travel in a straight line, since Louise has a morbid hatred of Texas that requires them to circle the Lone Star State. New Hollywood often drew upon the westward expansion of classical westerns, but that lineage is totally ruptured here, not least because Louise disavows Texas, the site of so many westerns. Since the myth of westward expansion dictated the limits of realism in both westerns and road films, this more circuitous route creates a hyperreal property and potential, especially once Detective Hal Slocumb, played by Harvey Keitel, steps into the western role of the bountry hunter, coordinating the effort to rein the women into a more recognisable narrative.
Yet the film mitigates against Slocumb’s efforts, growing more surreal with each new threshold that Thelma and Louise pass on their flight from patriarchy. After a while, they seem to be searching for a nascent digital space, a form of feminism that depends on a digitally networked world. In Blade Runner and Black Rain, Scott created a trope that would persist right up until The Matrix – cloying rain as a harbinger of a digitally murky future. That rain recurs in these later stages of Thelma & Louise, not as a source of inner-city grime, but as a palpable plasticity, a naked artificiality, that breaks any residual reality-principle that remains.
Over the third act of the film, a series of rain showers start to proliferate right in front of the camera, while the rest of the scene is daylit and dry. These showers never feel like weather in the conventional sense – they’re more like physical manifestations of the oversaturation that starts to descend on Scott’s mise-en-scenes. In the opening credits of the film, we move from a stylised black-and-white landscape to a luridly hypersatured landscape, in a kind of saturated fade-up. The same process occurs, more gradually, in the third act of the film, as a flowering of brilliant colours suggests an unseen digital presence moving through the ether, shifting the country-and-western twang of the early scenes into an electronically treated guitar. The volatile ambience of the road now becomes a kind of networked potential, as we move through vistas that are full of other objects moving – or full of electrical wires, brimming with electromagnetic activity, not unlike the vast fields of power grids that close out Se7en.
Thelma & Louise is often regarded as Scott’s best non sci-fi film, but this third act is as resistant to reality, or as invested in alternative realities, as his greatest sci-fi features. In fact, Thelma & Louise is truer to science fiction, in that it occupies a world that’s not quite real, and not quite unreal, not quite set in the future, but not quite set in the present either. Instead, this is a world set in the future conditional, a film that seeks out the possibilities of a feminist future in the present, for a new kind of unreality that challenges reality as we’ve been conditioned to receive it. It’s an assault on what might be described as patriarchal realism – the grudging concession of so much 90s cinema that patriarchy is, regrettably, the only way.
To evoke another way, Scott has to tread an especially vertiginous dramedic line, and the result is a bit like the off-reality of recent black cinema – a way of expressing the impossibility of a certain minority position within realism as Hollywood understands it. In this case, Scott can never quite sink into the gravitas of the road without sacrificing the film’s feminist line of flight, while he can’t compensate with pure picaresque, since that’s a New Hollywood mode too. To stay true to Khouri’s screenplay, everything in this third act has to be emergent, which is perhaps why Thelma & Louise is so evocative at capturing networked structures of feeling that were only emergent at the time. No surprise, then, that Louise reiterates the impossibility of the date rape defence in the midst of the most hyperreal landscape yet – a fluorescent moonscape that embraces CGI more overtly than any other sequence in the film.
Scott and Khouri are thus searching for nothing less than a new cinematic language during the third act of the film. As a result, cinematic motifs start to predominate – Thelma and Louise pass by a movie theatre, and the police bunker down to watch movies at Thelma’s house while they wait for their next directive from Slocumb. Finally, Thelma and Louise reach the last threshold in this transition into hyperreality, which also happens to be one of the landscapes most linked with Hollywood in the American consciousness – Monument Valley.
No space has ever anchored the widescreen male gaze like Monument Valley – a landscape so associated with the monumental male gaze that it’s become a monument to male gazes in and of itself. There’s something inherently dissonant, then, about two women driving through Monument Valley to escape the patriarchy. But Scott also enhances that dissonance in a number of ways. Rather than approaching the valley monumentally, from a distance, we abruptly cut to Thelma and Louise driving through it, while playing Marianne Faithfull’s “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” This song was released at the end of the New Hollywood era, but its synthesized tones were always gesturing towards the future, so it’s the perfect emblem for the film’s fixation with a feminist future that never eventuated. Scott manages to make the synthesized score of this third act feel as radical as synths did when Faithfull used them here.
At the same time, Scott largely refrains from the canonical establishing-shots of Monumental Valley, reserving most of his early expansive shots for night-time scenes, when the rock formations are weirdly distorted by the moonlight and floodlights. When we do finally see the valley from a distance in daylight hours, the fluorescent palette has grown even crazier, making it appear more like a computer-generated image. The sheer flamboyance of these colour schemes cut against the stately tastefulness of the male gaze that Monument Valley was supposed to serve, discarding both western and road film as so much indulgent unreality.
No surprise, then, that Monument Valley now becomes a place of bathos and inconsistent tonality. For much of the drive, Thelma is caught between laughing and crying, while Louise chooses Monument Valley as the place to disclose why she couldn’t drive through Texas. Surrounded by the volcanic plugs, she confides to Thelma that she was raped in Texas, just as Thelma was raped en route to Texas, meaning Texas will forever be associated with assault in her mind. By extension, so will the westward expansion that could have taken them both through Texas, now transformed from a heroic trajectory to a legacy of patriarchal brutality.
This bathos extends to the one remaining figure of law and order that we see in Texas – a white police officer who stops Thelma and Louise by the side of the road. As Thelma holds him at gunpoint, and explains the basic tenets of feminism, the film almost becomes a full-blown comedy – and it reaches an even more sublime dissonance a few scenes later, when we return to this cop once again. Handcuffed in his car, he’s discovered by the last person you’d associate with Monument Valley in its classicist mode – a Jamaican-American cyclist, coated in fluorescent hi-vis gear that ripples like a hallucination against the oversaturated skies, listening to his Walkman as he slows down to blow smoke, deadpan, through the cop’s window. “I can see clearly now” is playing on his headphones, the last touch in Scott and Khouri’s inversion of Monument Valley as perceptual precondition of white male Hollywood.
As Thelma and Louise leave Monument Valley, and head to Canyonlands National Park, the film reaches a kind of representational threshold. By this stage, Scott seems to have exhausted even the most lurid colour palettes, so he just adds more of them, opting for shots that foreground the sky, which grows less real, more visible, more present as a vehicle for possibility. Thelma and Louise are now competing with Slocumb for who can claim the sky first, or reach the sky first, since there’s nowhere else to go – nothing in America that can sustain them now. Thelma realises that “something’s crossed over in me and I can’t go back,” and that “everything looks different” beneath the vast skies that the film stretches above her.
The last few scenes seem to take place in a future that is still beyond us today. After Thelma and Louise explode a truck into the sky, Slocumb arrives by helicopter, while another officer chases them in a small plane as they drive along the edges of a canyon. Hyperbolic plumes of smoke visualise the slipstream of the film until everyone is finally drawn into it – and there is nothing to do but intensify it. With cars converging from every angle, the space around Thelma and Louise’s car becomes more precarious, volatile, disorienting – more dangerous, to be sure, but more pregnant with possibilities if they just know how and when to take them.
They end with nothing but car and sky, posed on the edge of the Grand Canyon, with blue air at eye level as a helicopter rises from the valley floor in one last-ditch effort to redirect their sightline. As in Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, released the same year, the Grand Canyon becomes a kind of sublime representational limit here – a challenge to the reproachful realism that would insist that the only viable option, in both life and Hollywood, is for Thelma and Louise to be punished for their crimes, or else return to their men in some refracted manner.
Instead, we have one of the most daring film endings of all time, as the two women share a kiss, decide to “keep going” and drive the car straight into the sky. Roger Ebert criticised Scott for cutting back to a montage sequence as soon as Thelma and Louise careened into open space, but the brevity of this last image of the car, poised in the great sky above the canyon, embeds it back in the propulsive momentum of the film as a whole. Thelma and Louise remain poised at the very apex of their arcing trajectory, soaring rather than falling, grasping the sky as their own – a high point for feminist cinema that few films have managed to equal since.