Thelma & Louise stands out. It stands out among the critical hits of the 90s. It stands out in the oeuvre of its major stars as decisive benchmarks. It stands out in pop-culture memory. Particularly, though, it stands out in Ridley Scott’s wide-ranging work. In a 40 year career, it is the Scott film most unlike anything he’s done before it, or after. I lead with Scott’s place in the film because, as foolish as valuations of ‘best’ go, it’s difficult not to consider Thelma & Louise as the director’s best film (give or take Alien). It features some of his strongest cinematic sequences, perhaps the best performance in a Scott film and above all else, it has that ending.
Yes, that ending. 25-year-old spoilers they may be, but it is hard and even foolish to talk about Thelma & Louise and its legacy without considering that ending. It’s one of the most evocative images of 90s cinema and a great deal of its potential feminist legacy emanates from it. Is the ending defeatist in its suggestion that the only way to survive in a sexist world is by ceasing to exist or is it actually two women controlling their destiny even in death?
Thelma & Louise’s coverage of a road trip which turns into an unwitting crime spree is most easily identified by its dual leads. Redheads Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis turn in performances close to the heights of their oeuvre and it’s the rapport between the two that establishes the film as one of the most effective tales of female friendship on screen. For awards geeks it remains, for now, the last film to earn two Best Actress nominations (the duo would go on to lose to Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs at the 1991 Oscars).
That bit of trivia underscores more than just the last 25 years of fraudulent awards campaigning, and may point to a decisive lack in films of this ilk which centre themselves, solely, on platonic rapport between women which does not emanate from a male context. Indeed, Ridley Scott has never been all that adverse to complex and thoughtful female characters, but Thelma & Louise stands out for the centring of that complexity against a lens that seems to be impressively female focused.
25 years later, it is hard for Thelma & Louise to avoid the questions of evaluating its ‘feminism’ as either good or bad. However, the ethical feminist implications of the ending may be incidental despite its iconic footprint. Or, if not incidental it might be more constructively read through the lens of the film not as females but as outlaws.
If there’s an argument to make for tying Thelma & Louise to more traditional Ridley Scott features, it’s in the way it can be brought back to a genre. In this case it would be the crime movie. Callie Khouri’s script borrows elements of the crime picture but privileges its womanhood and what works about the film is the certain way it keeps us in touch and supportive of both women as they grow increasingly reckless. It does not insert women in a character that can be played by anyone, but roots them in crises borne out of their womanhood. Khouri’s fantastic work here ensures that the film develops from a precise chain of events. Each action is so clearly a result of the previous that the film’s two hours never feel obligatory.
In today’s overly ethical film critic culture, Thelma & Louise would probably immediately be questioned for espousing ‘bad feminism’ or ‘defeatist’ feminism. And as it sails to its silver anniversary, its deliberately provocative ethos still seems to be brushed aside. Thelma & Louise did not exactly spawn a slate of female outlaws on screen, neither did Khouri’s Oscar win for her screenplay lead to hordes more original screenplays from women. Only last year the A.C.L.U. demanded an investigation into sexism within Hollywood. There have been countless parodies and homages to that final scene where the two women embrace and then drive off that cliff to their death. But, that iconic moment hardly represents the ethos of the film’s assailment of an unfair world.
All these years later and it is good that Thelma & Louise continues to stand out for its skill, message and value, but sadder that it remains one of those rare films to blend the complexity of the human as criminal with the complexities of being a woman.