Thelma and Louise are two girlfriends — respectively a docile housewife and a tough ol’ waitress — who decide to take some time off from their unremarkable lives and go on a road trip together. The film begins all fun and dandy: the two girls pack their wee suitcases; they take what may well have been the first selfie ever snapped on the big screen — in short, the film seems to be shaping up to be your typical chick-flick about an innocent weekend away. And then Louise goes and shoots a man; they leave him dying in the dust, and speed away in that now infamous powder blue Thunderbird. Yikes. Did we see that one coming?
Twenty-four years ago we certainly didn’t. But while Thelma & Louise is undeniably surprising, it isn’t one to resort to cheap shocks and thrills either. Yes, two seemingly ordinary women somehow end up on a wild crime spree; yes, they meet far too attractive a robber while on the run. Yet we never doubt the validity of the story’s progression. So tightly plotted is Thelma & Louise that the snowballing of the two’s crimes seem to have an almost painful logic to them. In isolation, we would have shaken our heads in incredulity, but in quick succession we recognise only a kind of painful logic — through little fault of their own, Thelma and Louise are caught in a spiral of criminality; to escape from one problem, they must dive straight into another to keep themselves afloat.
Why though, even after so many years, does Thelma & Louise continue to thrill us? After all, we know what fate has in store for our two loveable felons; that last scene, that gorgeous final moment frozen in space and time, does not cease to be referenced and parodied. Nor do the violence, the gender politics, the rise of the female buddy picture — in other words, everything that made the film novel at the time, represent anything particularly controversial today. The answer? Two words: Thelma and Louise.
As one would expect with a movie which is eponymously titled, characterisation is absolutely key to Thelma & Louise. In classic buddy film fashion, the two heroines Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer are wildly different. Thelma begins quite the quintessential little housewife, sweetly submissive to her brutish husband. Louise, on the other hand, is a little more serious and focussed where Thelma is somewhat scatterbrained. She possesses as well a darker past, and the wisdom that surely comes with only harrowing experience.
Over the course of the film though, these two characters grow and change as they go on their journey of a lifetime. It is a testament to Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis that these subtle but distinctive changes arise so naturally. Like real-life friends so often do, Thelma and Louise absorb the very best (or the worst, depending on your take on things) from each other. Louise learns to really let go and embrace life no matter where it leads; Thelma, meanwhile, really comes into her own in the latter portion of the film, and starts to show an unmistakable and often hilarious flair for delinquency.
Both become surer, freer than they ever have been in their lives. Therein lies the heartbreaking irony of Thelma & Louise: it is only as they get deeper and deeper into trouble do Thelma and Louise discover what it means to be alive. After decades of meaninglessness, their eyes are opened to the splendour and the sheer joy of life as they speed towards metaphorical, and ultimately literal, death. They speak optimistically of an idyllic future together in Mexico, drinking margaritas in a little hacienda by the sea. We know that Thelma and Louise are not going to make it though, and what is more, they surely know it too.
Through his majestic photography of the rural West, Ridley Scott highlights the warmth, freedom and quintessentially American hope which the two women come to embody. The Grand Canyon scenes (filmed in the Moab area of Utah) in particular, are wonderfully befitting of the characters, as well as the film as a whole. Like those precipitous golden cliffs, Thelma and Louise are rugged, beautiful — definitely a little dangerous too. And most importantly, Thelma and Louise are two who never yield, but stand boldly to the last.