Thelma is a neglected housewife who ditches her bullying husband to spend a weekend fishing with her friend Louise, a hash-house waitress who drives an impeccably maintained 1966 Thunderbird convertible. A quick stop at a bar leads to trouble when Thelma is accosted by a local man. Louise shoots the guy. The two women flee, believing that Thelma’s drunken behaviour on the dance floor will make their sexual assault claim untenable. The rest of the films follows their panicked dash across the backroads of the southwest attempting to flee law, order and patriarchy.
Released in 1991, Thelma and Louise cost MGM a modest $16.5 million and was a rather unlikely bet for a mainstream Hollywood film. Callie Khouri’s first screenplay was prompted by dissatisfaction with the way women were portrayed in Hollywood film:
“I wanted to write about two normal women …. I wanted to write something with strong women in it .… that’s another one of the things I’ve never seen dealt with in a film, the anger women feel about the way they’re talked to.” 1
and inspired by an incident which resonates within the film’s narrative:
“I was walking down the street, when this old guy in a car starts talking to me. I’m ignoring him, which is what you’re supposed to do in that situation. Then he said, ‘I’d like to see you suck my dick’, and I just lost it for a second. I walked over to the car and said, ‘I’d like to shoot you in the fucking face’.” 2
In the pragmatic business world of Hollywood the script stood no chance without an accredited director behind it. Ridley Scott had power in Hollywood due to the success of Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) and his decision to direct the film made it a viable proposition. He recalls that ‘the script. had floated around for ages and fallen through the net …. You’d be amazed how many directors turned it down’. 3 Two strong female leads, an array of unattractive male characters, a generic mix of Western and road movie which were generally considered ‘male’ genres and were not in fashion, plus a downbeat ending – certainly not reassuring ingredients for box office success. Scott was aware the subject matter needed careful handling if it was to succeed with a mainstream audience: ‘I thought it should be really humorous and then you didn’t ostracize two thirds of the audience’. 4 While this suggests Scott ‘watered down’ the script’s feminist credentials to secure a mainstream audience Khouri herself has commented that, if anything, he made the male characters less sympathetic than her originals:
“When you read the script you’ll see that in Thelma and Louise, the male characters were portrayed in a way that was more caricatured on the screen than on the page. And that was a decision made by the male director and the male actors who played them.” 5
She is also ambivalent about the film’s status as a feminist text: ‘the issues surrounding the film are feminist. But the film itself is not’. 6
Considering all these factors, the film’s reception was surprising. An immediate hit with audiences, it made $45 million in the US and £4 million in the UK. Critical acclaim followed with an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the screenplay, and three further Oscar nominations.7 The American popular press were equally fascinated by the film: Time magazine carried the headline, ‘Why Thelma and Louise strikes a nerve’. 8 Subsequent critical debate even found its genre contentious: road movie, buddy movie, Thelma and Louise (1991) 521 screwball comedy, rape-revenge narrative, Western? This strange generic mix, the unlikely pairing of Khouri and Scott, and the ‘feminist’ issues mapped onto a mainstream Hollywood film, provide a framework for understanding the paradoxical and controversial response to the film.
The opening shot of the desert road stretching ahead to the hills is iconic of both the road movie and the Western and encourages particular generic expectations. It connotes not just the wide open spaces of the American West, but the freedom and self-determination coded into the myth of ‘the West’ and popularised by Hollywood. The first sequence (Thelma being bullied by Darryl in her dimly lit kitchen, and Louise waiting tables in a diner) resonates with ideas of entrapment because of its juxtaposition with the opening shot. The sense of forbidden territory is increased by the fact that to an audience familiar with Hollywood films such spaces are gendered: in both the road movie and the Western this is a predominantly ‘male’ space.
Encounters along the road with a series of men are used to explore, as Hal Slocumb trenchantly puts it, all the ways women can be ‘fucked over’. The road movie and the Western are genres which explore the relationship between the individual and society, and related issues of freedom and justice. Here this is inflected specifically towards issues of power and gender. Each incident shows how men exert power over women: with brute physical force (Harlan), bullying and belittling (Darryl), emotional abuse (Jimmy), financial exploitation (JD), sexual harassment (the truck driver) and, in a more complex way, under the guise of fatherly protection (Hal, who betrays them to the FBI). The laws of society are portrayed as ‘some tricky shit’ and do not protect the women from abuse.
So far, so radical; but also present in the opening sequence are comic elements creating audience expectations which temper the seriousness of this message. The narrative structure and iconography of the road movie (long shots of the road, shots of the road through the rearview mirror, the ‘T-bird’) mixed with Western (mesas, desert scenery, the flight to Mexico, outlaws, Stetsons, bandanas, guns, the law) is undercut by the element of ‘feminine’ screwball comedy, evidenced by the appearance of the two women at the beginning of the film (Thelma’s incompetent packing, their names, their witty badinage). This mix of genres complicates the ways in which we read the film. The very image of Thelma and Louise against the typical scenery of the Western constantly reminds audiences that they are out of place, and the dialogue underlines this. The ‘feminine’ nature of their discourse juxtaposed against the setting and ‘masculine’ narrative in which they find themselves produces humour: comments such as ‘Thelma, don’t you litter!’ and ‘Would you do that to your mother or your sister?’ are staples of motherly discourse but their displacement onto the narrative of the Western/road movie (shootings, flight from the law, hold-ups) make them comically ludicrous, and paradoxically remind us these women are not really the outlaws the narrative seems to make them. This makes the female representations oxymoronic in ways which may reflect more truly the ambivalent position of women in society.
Scott’s decision to emphasise the humour, pushing the male characters further towards caricature, is another way in which meanings are destabilised. The sharpness of the critique of male power is lessened and the audience can react to the encounters along the road with enjoyment, untroubled by the depressing lack of power which got the women into these situations or the dubious morality of their responses. Darryl stepping into his pizza, his exaggerated comic gestures on the phone to Thelma, the traffic cop’s finger wiggling impotently through the bullet hole in his car, and the truck driver shaking his fists against the backdrop of his exploded vehicle ensure humour predominates and the very male power the narrative is criticising is stripped of threat. The strongly cathartic element in some of the incidents: the shooting of Harlan, the blowing up of the tanker and the ‘Nazi’ traffic cop reduced to an impotently weeping shadow of his former self, invert the usual power balance. This has an obvious appeal to women all too familiar with the status quo but the element of comedy enables the appeal to transcend gender. This combination of elements makes the film a heady and exhilarating mix: a powerful evocation of ‘busting out of your life’. 9
The attempted rape at the Silver Bullet is the only sequence devoid of a comic element. Here the film’s exploration of gender and power is at its most bleak and literal. Positioned to share Thelma’s distress, the 522 Thelma and Louise (1991) powerlessness of women is at its most apparent. The appearance of the gun, as if by magic in the top right-hand side of the frame, stops the attack. Much controversy was aroused by the women’s appropriation of that quintessentially male symbol, but this is the only point where the gun is used to kill. A symbol of power in the film, it is used primarily to question just how much power it bestows. Here it can stop the rape but it cannot change the attitude that led to it. Some critics felt that for women to use the gun to exert power was a pyrrhic victory for feminism, but the meanings which cluster around the image of the gun are more complex.
Although the attempted rape and the unspoken story of what happened to Louise in Texas are used to highlight the injustice of the law, it is what happens after the attack which really interests Khouri: even armed with a gun Louise is not taken seriously by Harlan and he continues to insult her. She shoots him because of this contempt (‘I should have gone ahead and fucked her’) and her final comment (‘You watch your mouth, buddy’) reflects this. This becomes a central and contradictory metaphor in the film: women may appropriate all the trappings of male power but they will never overturn the power balance. Part of the force of the film can be explained by the complexity of this one moment: it is at one and the same time a depressing acceptance of powerlessness, a fairy-tale ending to an ugly all too common female experience, the start of an adventure which makes Thelma and Louise unlikely outlaws, and the beginning of Thelma’s growth to self-knowledge, discovering ‘her calling’ and feeling more ‘wide awake’ then she ever has in her life.
Subsequent encounters along the road can be read as comic replays of the rape sequence. Each balances a recapturing of the ‘feel-good’ element with restating the stark fact that women have no real power. Thelma and Louise’s attempt to get an apology from the male characters – the word echoes through the film, starting with Harlan (‘You say you’re sorry, or I’m going to make you sorry.’) and ending with the truck driver (‘We think you should apologise’) – reasserts their femininity; they remain essentially ‘nice’ women, feminine in their demeanour, apologising profusely as they go. They are parody mothers, on a mission to improve the manners of the men (‘We think you have really bad manners’), but the fact is they have no power to make any of the men apologise, not even at gunpoint.
This makes their choice at the end a fitting conclusion: there is no place for them in this society. The law, represented by the hyperbolic display of male power facing them on the edge of the Grand Canyon, is uninterested in justice. However, to anyone who has seen the film this potentially depressing reading doesn’t ring true to the experience of watching the film. The ambivalence of the ending with its tension between the essentially depressing representation of female powerlessness and its fairy-tale happy ending where the women ‘just keep going’ (emphasised by the use of the freeze-frame and the reprise of shots from earlier in the film) are in keeping with the rest of the film. The slow motion image of Hal, arm outstretched, forever trying to catch the women and forever doomed to fail, underlines their ultimate escape from male power and allows the audience to leave the cinema feeling uplifted rather than outraged. A great part of this film’s power is to achieve the seemingly incompatible aims of both presenting a stark reality and providing an enjoyable escape from it.
1. Callie Khouri interviewed by David Konow. Available at www.creativescreenwriting.com (accessed 2 February 2007).
2. ‘The Art of Visual Storytelling: Callie Khouri on creating character in Thelma and Louise’. Available at www.sydfield.com (accessed 2 February 2007).
3. ‘Ridley Scott Uncut’, Times Online. Available at timesonline.co.uk (accessed 2 February 2007).
5. Marita Sturken, Thelma and Louise, London, BFI, 2000, p. 20.
6. Ibid, p. 8.
7. Data from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) (accessed 9 May 2007).
8. Sturken, 2000, p. 20.
9. Ibid, p. 16.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: MetroGoldwyn-Mayer. Director: Ridley Scott. Screenwriter: Callie Khouri. Cinematographer: Adrian Biddle. Music: Hans Zimmer. Editor: Thom Noble. Cast: Susan Sarandon (Louise Elizabeth Sawyer), Geena Davis (Thelma Yvonne Dickinson), Harvey Keitel (Hal Slocumb), Brad Pitt (J.D.), Timothy Carhart (Harlan).]
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.