There’s a moment near the end of “Thelma and Louise” where the infamous duo must make a choice. One says to the other, “Let’s keep going.” And 27 years later, Thelma and Louise are still going strong.
The film tells the story of Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon), two best friends who set out on a weekend getaway and end up the targets of a police manhunt that crosses multiple states. But, of course, it is so much more than that.
Thelma is a timid, shy woman whose husband, Darryl (Christopher McDonald), favors archaic gender roles. He mainly wants a wife who waits with a nice, hot dinner whenever he deigns to find his way home. Louise is a waitress in a diner, the type who has no trouble putting people in their place when they deserve it. Her musician boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen) is on the road a lot, and Louise is lonely.
If the title didn’t do so, the opening credits firmly establish that Davis and Sarandon are co-leads. Their names appear side by side on the first title card, just as the two will remain side by side through the entirety of the story. They are typical best friends. Getting exasperated with each other, sometimes mad. Thelma may be shy and quiet in most situations, but when she’s with Louise she says what’s on her mind.
There are many aspects of the film that would be controversial today, let alone in 1991. In that year, we still had only ever had one woman justice on the US Supreme Court. Only one woman had ever been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. Topics like sexual assault and domestic violence were not openly discussed. Women had come a long way from their lives as 1950s housewives and secretaries, but there was still a lot of work to do in terms of equality.
In 2018, there still is a long way to go in too many areas.
But when “Thelma and Louise” hit theaters in 1991, it took all those taboo topics and put them front and center. Darryl is a terrible husband, and they don’t try to excuse him. It’s also clear up front that abuse doesn’t always come in the form of physical violence.
But the most significant moment—and the catalyst for the story—comes fairly early on when the ladies stop at a roadside bar and encounter Harlan (Timothy Carhart), a local predator who zeroes in on Thelma as an easy target for his next conquest. Harlan is clearly slimy, but Thelma is too high on vacation mode to notice. Louise does, shooing him away for awhile. Eventually, though, he finds his opportunity and lures a very drunk Thelma outside. In the parking lot, things take a dark turn as Harlan attempts to rape Thelma, who is covered in vomit and sobbing. Louise steps in to rescue her friend, brandishing a gun.
Various forms of sexual assault, including rape, have been depicted in film since the beginning. This scene matters because of what happens next. When the ladies are safe and the crisis averted, Harlan makes a final angry remark. Under no threat to either of them, Louise shoots and kills Harlan, immediately realizes what she’s done, and the two make a hasty escape.
This movie is important, and this scene is vital, because it is very clear. With no ambiguity, we see that Louise clearly intended to shoot. It wasn’t accidental. There was no specific and immediate act of self-defense. The ladies knew that any explanation they offered would be immediately dismissed. There could simply be no justification for shooting a man who was not in the act of harming them. And so, their road trip becomes a run for their lives. And with that run, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Callie Khouri take the audience on a new path.
There are plenty of other, similar films, and this one does incorporate familiar tropes. Sun-soaked landscapes, country songs, and luxurious shots of Louise’s topless 1966 Thunderbird gliding down the highway. But it takes other turns too, in the forms of a disgusting, overeager trucker (Marco St. John), and the young and devilishly handsome hitchhiker, J.D. (Brad Pitt). And a sympathetic detective (Harvey Keitel), who simply wants to bring the girls in and get their side of the story.
Looking back on the film now, with so many years in between, it’s interesting to ponder what has changed in the world and what hasn’t. The idea that “Thelma was asking for it” while drunkenly dancing with Harlan is still a topic that would be as heavily debated in 2018. People would likely be more open and sympathetic to Thelma’s plight, although there are still many who dismiss abuse if it isn’t accompanied by bruises and scars.
Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Despite all the supposed progress in bringing more female-centric stories to the screen, they were the last two women to both be nominated for Lead Actress in the same film. Sure, more women’s stories are being told, but there is typically only room for one leading lady at a time. When this film was released in 1991, many hoped it was a turning point for women in cinema. In some ways it was. And yet, the flood of women-led films didn’t materialize. We’re still waiting.
The film earned six Academy Award nominations in 1991. Ridley Scott scored a nomination for directing, both women were nominated, and Callie Khouri won the prize for Original Screenplay, but the Academy did not nominate “Thelma and Louise” for Best Picture. In a year that saw an animated feature and a horror/drama among the best, they still couldn’t find room for a tale that was entirely about women.
But, regardless of awards, the film lives on. It is an enduring example of the power of women, a celebration of female friendships, and a damn good movie.