Written by: Callie Khourie Directed by: Ridley Scot
It’s a sign of my still amateurish relationship to film, that until taking it out of the library the other day I had barely heard of Thelma and Louise. Perhaps I had, but had simply confused it in my head with the numerous other “duo things” I hadn’t seen: Cheech and Chong, Starsky and Hutch, etc. I trust that these works are not very apt comparisons to the film I just saw, but part of me wonders if that’s not a problem. Thelma and Louise is a serious, political movie, yet its character perhaps comes from the fact that it is in fact disguised as something else.
Thelma and Louise is a buddy movie, a roadtrip movie. This setup implies comedy, as did the film’s trailer. I would not say it’s not a comic film: it has its share of light, and comedically shocking lines. But to call the film a comedy, even a black comedy, would miss that it’s a story not focused around its jokes, but around its core theme.
Without giving too much away, Thelma and Louise is a story about gendered violence and how women who fall victim to it are not believed in their accounts of what happened. This is a problem Louise (Susan Sarandon) and Thelma (Geena Davis) decide to deal with by escaping into the power and hedonistic thrill of an outlaw lifestyle. The film’s “comedic” story is thus not unlike that of Life is Beautiful: it can be appreciated as comedy, but only if one acknowledges that that comedy is an act of rebellion.
The film’s feminism is made obvious by its political premise: one that is explicitly, though not unnaturally, stated in the script. When a movie passes the Bechdel test, however, there will likely be more feminism to it than meets the eye. When we meet Louise and Thelma they fill somewhat familiar roles: Louise the grizzled veteran who knows what she’s talking about, Thelma the naïve sidekick. The film, however, is called Thelma and Louise not Louise and Thelma. This is perhaps because it is Thelma who suffers and transforms more in the period of time depicted on camera; and her transformation eventually allows her to upstage Louise. Thelma thus breaks what one might expect from a character in a buddy comedy: she can be naïve, but this is not her defining feature: in the right situation, she can be the strong, daring and articulate character. The film thus takes a transformative and not a mere reformist approach to the “ditz stereotype,” allowing Thelma to break free from its chains, while not denying her the chance to also show off her naïve side.
To elaborate on the Bechedelian point, the film’s unique feminist status can be seen in how its depicts men. Yes, one man stands out as an antagonist, but there are other problematic men along the way, including cops, who are like enemy robots, in their inability to look beyond the law and empathize with Thelma and Louise’ situation. An other male still is rendered fodder for one of the film’s road comedy scenes. Just as the film is feminist in its depictions of various male dangers, it also finds feminism in its strategic depiction of (sort of) good men (Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen and Brad Pitt). These characters enter the script providing color and additional layers of emotional complexity in the plot. Their greatest significance, however, is their inability to help the protagonists. Thelma and Louise only have each other, or at least, they come to see it that way.
Thelma and Louise find liberation, but that liberation relies on illusion and carpe diem (again, not unlike Life is Beautiful). This is a powerful image, one beautifully nailed in the film’s classic final scene. Perhaps you’ll spend some moments disappointed about the low ratio of gags to screen time in a film that you may expect to be a buddy comedy in Thelma and Louise, but ultimately it’s the kind of work where its thematic cohesiveness leaves one thoroughly satisfied.