Each week, one of the Filmoria team will be taking a skeleton out of their closet in the form of a movie widely regarded as a classic and finally watching it for the first time. This week, our resident Canadian Hillary Butler goes on the run with Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise…
“What?!! You’ve never seen Thelma & Louise?” was the response I got whenever I told anyone I was doing this piece. As the ‘filmy’ person amongst my group of friends they were shocked. I know, it’s an iconic film, but it just passed me by. I was only eleven when it was released, and I spend most of my spare time now just trying to keep up with current cinema. However, it was time for me to finally take it off my list of unwatched classics.
As most people reading this will have, unlike me, actually seen Thelma & Louise, this hardly seems necessary, but in case you’ve been avoiding notes on the ending for the last 26 years… spoilers ahead!
Directed by Ridley Scott, Thelma & Louise tells the story of two women on the run. Louise (Susan Sarandon) is a waitress looking for a weekend getaway with her best friend Thelma (Geena Davis), a housewife trapped with an oppressive, demeaning husband. What starts as an innocent escape takes a violent turn for the worse when a man in a bar during their first pit stop sexually assaults Thelma, and Louise, interrupting the unspeakable act, takes action, shooting the perpetrator. The two jump into their car, racing away from the crime scene.
What happens next is part road trip, part western, part crime spree – and on the way Thelma and Louise are slighted by the other men they encounter: the handsome cowboy who steals their cash (Brad Pitt), the disgusting driver of a transport truck. And the women also take their revenge. The only man who seems to have their best interest at heart is the cop investigating their case (Harvey Keitel). Along their road to freedom in Mexico, our two protagonists really come alive. Though their crimes keep snowballing towards inevitable incarceration, both Thelma and Louise have escaped from the lives in which they felt trapped.
The question I guess is, how does Thelma & Louise hold up after twenty six years? Hello smoking indoors! Hello synthesizer music! Hello pay phones! There are definite, and immediate clues that you’re watching an early 90s film if you didn’t know already. However, the overriding themes here are still terribly relevant today. A large part of why Thelma and Louise end up on the run is because they don’t think that anyone will believe that Thelma was in the midst of being raped. They don’t feel that their killing of the attacker will be seen as self-defense. And unfortunately, all these years later not much has changed. Women still largely don’t feel safe reporting sexual assault, they still feel no one will believe them, they are still often made to be the villain despite being the victim. While watching the film, especially in today’s political climate, it really sunk in how this issue is still present. It was quite depressing to realize.
The other thing that stands out is that in 1991, a film geared to women being made and released was a pretty big deal. Respected critic Roger Ebert released an article at the time entitled “Thelma & Louise Lets Women Rebel”. It started with, “Women all over the country are going to see Thelma and Louise with a rare enthusiasm, despite Hollywood’s conventional wisdom that men make most of the moviegoing decisions.” Interesting that still years later there is debate about making female targeted films and surprise when they’re successful. Remember Bridesmaids back in 2011 when the world discovered women were funny? Decades after Thelma and Louise seemed to break barriers, they still seemingly exist. Roles for women in film are still underrepresented, especially once you’re past a ‘certain’ age.
All social commentary aside, I still found that Thelma & Louise was an entertaining ride. But, watching the film twenty six years after its initial release, the ending of course loses some of its impact. It’s pretty hard to ignore pop culture references that mention the ending over the years. As the iconic scene of Louise’s Thunderbird (almost a character in its on right) racing across the desert, police in chase, comes up on screen, you know the moment when they drive off that cliff is coming. I’d imagine the ending back in 1991 was surprising to the majority of theatregoers, and polarizing. I’m not sure how NOT knowing the ending would impact what you see before, and I guess I’ll never know, but I’m sure the lasting impression would be slightly different.
I’m definitely glad that I finally watched this iconic film. It may be even more relevant now than it was even then. Davis and Sarandon are spectacular, an absolute joy to watch, and it’s beautiful to see their characters truly come alive during the course of their journey. Films even a quarter century old can still hold up. Perhaps at this stage it would be wise for me to knock a few other classics off my list. Godfather and Rocky… you’re next.