Call it a comedy of shocking gravity. Thelma & Louise begins like an episode of I Love Lucy and ends with the impact of Easy Rider. It’s a bumpy path between those points, and director Ridley Scott (Black Rain) and first-time screenwriter Callie Khouri don’t cushion the ride. The film switches moods violently, and sometimes it just jerks your chain. But this is movie dynamite, detonated by award-caliber performances from Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in the title roles.
Davis plays Thelma, a Arkansas housewife married to a cheating, verbally abusive salesman named Darryl (broadly caricatured by Christopher McDonald) whom she began dating when she was fourteen. “He’s an asshole,” says Thelma, “but most times I just let it slide.”
Sarandon plays Thelma’s pal Louise, a waitress who is pushing forty and fed up with waiting for her musician boyfriend, Jimmy (subtly detailed by Michael Madsen), to stop roving and commit. Louise organizes a weekend fishing trip for herself and Thelma, who doesn’t know how to fish. “Neither do I,” says Louise, “but Darryl does it — how hard can it be?”
That’s the setup: two women putting drudgery and men behind them for a few days of rest and intelligent talk. But before they reach their destination, a hungry Thelma asks Louise to stop her ’66 T-Bird convertible at a roadhouse, where Thelma knocks back three shots of Wild Turkey and dances with a local Romeo.
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Louise thinks her friend is just blowing off steam until she catches the guy beating and trying to rape Thelma in the parking lot. Grabbing Darryl’s gun (which Thelma brought along for protection), Louise presses the barrel into the rapist’s neck and says, “Just for the future, when a woman’s crying like that, she’s not having any fun.” He hitches up his pants and starts to leave but not before saying to Louise, “Suck my cock.” Louise takes two steps back and fires a bullet into his face. The suddenness of the act — the man is no longer a threat — is shattering. Vividly shot by Adrian Biddle (Aliens) and edited by Thom Noble (Witness), the scene is made even more potent by Louise’s whispered remark to the bloody victim: “You watch your mouth, buddy.” In a stunningly poignant performance, Sarandon shows that the emotionally bruised Louise has been in a similar position before and has finally been pushed past her limit.
The dazed women drive off and try to plan their next move. The cops have staked out their homes. When Thelma phones Darryl, detective Hal Slocumbe (Harvey Keitel) urges the pair to stop running. Hal is the film’s one sympathetic male character, and he doesn’t ring true. Khouri — a Texas-born actress, video producer and former waitress — doesn’t turn her movie into a man-hating tract, but she does show what a lifetime of male sexual threat and domination (disguised as paternalism) can do to women.
Thelma and Louise — now outlaws — attempt to escape to a new life in Mexico, the movie offers vignettes that are comic, tragic and surreal, sometimes simultaneously. They pick up J.D., a hitchhiking hunk charmingly played by Brad Pitt. Thelma takes him to bed because she likes his body. “You could park a car in the shadow of Darryl’s ass,” she tells Louise. For once, Thelma has a sexual experience that isn’t “completely disgusting.” In bed, J.D. — using a hair dryer as a gun — teaches Thelma the art of armed robbery. Then he robs her. The experience pushes Thelma over the line; she knocks over a convenience store using the J.D. method. “I know it’s crazy,” she tells Louise, “but I just feel like I’ve got a knack for this shit.” Swilling booze and howling like a dog, Thelma heeds the call of the wild. But Davis, who has never been better, keeps Thelma rooted in reality. Crime has taught her to express herself; she won’t go back to a cage.
Surrender doesn’t suit Louise, either. She knows the police won’t buy the truth because “we just don’t live in that kind of world.” Besides, she says, “I don’t want to end up on the damned Geraldo show.” The banter doesn’t disguise the terror these women feel, but driving through Utah’s Canyonlands — after blowing up the gas tank of a semi whose driver offered to lick them all over — they achieve a kind of serenity.
As the film plunges toward its lacerating climax, some may have conflicting feelings about Thelma and Louise: Are they feminist martyrs or bitches from hell? Neither is the case. They’re flesh-and-blood women out to expose the blight of sexism. Khouri’s script isn’t about rage or revenge; it’s about waste. Director Scott, whose films (Alien, Blade Runner) are noted for their slick surface, cuts to the marrow this time. This wincingly funny, pertinent and heartbreaking road movie means to get under your skin, and it does.