The road film is the most intimate subgenre in the movies. It requires that a couple of characters, maybe more, be forced to burgeon in each other’s company for a number of days, compacted into two hours or so. On their journey do they discover as much about themselves as they do one another; expected is an entirely new perspective on life, and a rediscovered sense of self.
Thelma & Louise is one of cinema’s definitive road movies, but it goes much deeper than the previously mentioned 1977 vehicle or something as untamed as Wild At Heart. It travels through various degrees of reinvention, existential realization, and goes by an overall notion that, sometimes, saying fuck it is a standard more beneficial to live by than merely playing by the rules.
But Thelma & Louise deviates from its counterparts in the way that it isn’t as intentionally playful — it is a road movie out of necessity, where its leading ladies are running from the law, themselves, and the wearisome lives they once lived before driving off in a badass 1966 Thunderbird convertible. What are they speeding away from? At first, vacation is the first thing on their minds. Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) is a small-time waitress in the mood to relax for a few days and take a romantic breather away from her always traveling boyfriend, Jimmy (Michael Madsen). Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) is an obedient housewife who never has any fun because her controlling husband (Christopher McDonald) forbids her from having a conventional social life. All best friends Thelma and Louise plan to do is to shack up somewhere secluded and enjoy each other’s company.
A routine stop at a road house, though, turns their pleasant getaway into a nightmare. What was supposed to be a chance to bask in the joys of food and a few drinks sours when Thelma gets a little tipsy and flirts with a dude who, like her husband, is disgustingly misogynistic. He tries to rape her. But Louise, being the more mature, motherly of the pair, pulls a gun on him, threatening him simply so they can get away from the situation. But he unwisely antagonizes her, and the fired up Louise shoots him in the chest. Panic ensues.
The law catches on and a chase follows, and while their actions at first are guilt-ridden, the women begin to take to the life they’re currently living. Thelma hasn’t felt so alive in years; Louise has never been so needed. A couple of run-ins with shady characters and familiar faces pepper their adventure — Jimmy shows up out of nowhere to ask for Louise’s hand in marriage, a handsome stranger (Brad Pitt) has a one-night stand with Thelma and steals all their money, and a piggish truck driver seems to show up next to them on the road like clockwork — but in the process of their escape from average American life do they come to know themselves unlike ever before. A life of crime, it seems, suits them.
Famously, Thelma & Louise ends with the friends choosing to heroically drive over a cliff in Looney Tune fashion to avoid capture, and the shot of them mid-air is frozen until it fades into white. Due to physics and general common sense, they probably (probably) perish. But the ending is a mystical representation of the magic of cinema — through ambiguity, we can decide their fate for ourselves.
Being an optimistic viewer and ally of the increasingly courageous women, I choose to believe that the vintage car makes it to the other side of the canyon, that the landing is smooth and doesn’t crush the convertible, that Thelma and Louise are able to continue their crime spree and continue bathing in the glory of female bonding with danger seductively dancing by their sides. The film is charismatic enough for us to desire an epilogue so romanticized.
Thelma & Louise is also a critique on American life, where a job like waitressing isn’t as lively as Alice Hyatt made it seem, where acting as a housewife isn’t the dream Lucy and Ethel painted it as, where rape is a very serious reality, where freedom and expression is not as easy to come by as the government makes us believe. The titular friends act as an embodied rebellion — the roles given to them by society just aren’t going to do it any longer. Robbing convenience stores and locking police officers in their vehicle trunks makes for catharsis never felt in the grips of repression.
But despite its sharp commentaries, Thelma & Louise is, at heart, a terrific piece of escapism, a crowd-pleaser with noble insolence. Anyone, male or female, can relate to the great powers a strong friendship can bring, to the temptation to leave monotony behind in favor of something completely new and unpredictable. Callie Khouri’s screenplay, her first, bears a keen ear for realistic, meaningful conversation; Ridley Scott elegantly captures the thriving, beating hearts that possess the women as they go from everyday people to resident rebels. Sarandon and Davis, by turns susceptible, strong, and lovable, are a duo more fun to sit with than any buddy cop duet could ever be. We want to drive off that cliff with them. A-