For our next Film Club meeting on Friday 19th August at 1.00pm, we will be chatting about Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991), starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. Three decades on and Thelma and Louise remains a startling moment in Hollywood. Read on for Carolyn’s reflections on this cult classic film.
It’s been 30 years since Thelma & Louise (1991) roared into the cultural consciousness. “Thelma and Louise” became shorthand for women getting feisty, who just won’t take it anymore, and are going their own way – maybe in a convertible and possibly over a cliff.
The film made a huge impact for depicting two women at the compelling centre of a narrative. It showed them taking charge and becoming outlaws in a tale of female rage that resonated with many of the fairer sex, who have probably felt this anger, even if they don’t act on it. It was radical at the time and, sadly, still is.
But none of that would matter if it wasn’t also great entertainment. When we meet Thelma (Geena Davis) she’s trudging along a well-defined path monitored by an “asshole” husband who’s so domineering she doesn’t even want to ask for what she wants. By the end of the film Thelma’s taking what she wants – and has realised a life of requesting permission is no life at all.
Her friend Louise (Susan Sarandon) is a waitress, older, independent and seasoned enough in the ways of the world to keep her head down and not make waves. At least until waves need to be made. Louise has a past in Texas, a state she hates so much she won’t even drive through it. We never find out the precise details, but we know it involves sexual assault and it’s living with this legacy of trauma that pushes her over the edge.
It’s interesting how large a shadow the threat of sexual violence casts in a story about two women who are platonic friends. All they want is a weekend away, yet it’s obvious that when they stop off at a bar en route that Bad Things are about to happen, not because they’re unhinged lunatics, but because they’ll be targeted by a male predator.
Rape is the trigger for the women’s flight. Then it’s sex that curtails options as their escape fund disappears. At this point Thelma is definitely the weakest link, but an introduction to skills her husband lacked is inspiration to grow a backbone and develop a surprising talent for armed crime.
Thelma’s seduction by the charming drifter JD also launched the superstardom of a young, very handsome, and very muscular Brad Pitt, which was largely a good thing, at least until he disrespected his hair and started wearing “quirky” skirts.
British director, Ridley Scott, whose long career includes Gladiator (2000), Blade Runner (1982) and Alien (1979), infuses the film with sumptuous imagery of the American South. Under Scott’s eye, even a desperate and dusty Thelma and Louise look magnificent with wild hair and defiant expressions. As Thelma says: “At least now I’m having some fun.”
Despite violence against women being a Hollywood staple, some male critics took exception to Thelma and Louise shooting a rapist, locking a pompous police officer in his own car boot and destroying the rig of a sleazebag trucker. Okay, the last one may have had environmental repercussions, what with the smoke and the waste of fossil fuel. Not all men are the enemy, but in this movie, some do their damnedest to make it seem that way. Luckily, we have nice detective Hal (Harvey Keitel), who demonstrates not all blokes respond to frustration by punching things.
There are great comedic moments, such as when Thelma’s oafish husband is so surprised he stands on his pizza. When the police officer begs a gun-toting Thelma for mercy, using his wife and children as leverage, Thelma advises the officer to be nice to them. “My husband wasn’t sweet to me,” she says. “Look how I turned out.”
The film was unusual for its depiction of female allies. Thelma and Louise were united in the dream of a new life in Mexico, where all good bandits go to live in a hacienda and kick back, clutching margaritas. Davis said reaction to the film made her realise that audiences could feel “empowered by the female characters” and it changed her attitude to the roles she chose from then on.
Davis and Sarandon both became advocates for gender equality in the film industry, and in 2004 Davis set up the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to reduce stereotyping and put more women on screen.
The film’s ending captures how they are literally backed onto a cliff edge, crushing law enforcement on one side, abyss on the other. Neither of these women had many choices in life, and despite getting a taste of real freedom, their choices are down to just two. Realising there’s no way out, they seal their decision with a kiss and ride off into a permanent and poignantly triumphant sunset. As Sarandon put it at a celebration to mark 30 years since the film’s release: “One juicy romantic take and then off we go into Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid area.”
Unlike Butch and Sundance, Thelma and Louise weren’t career criminals. But, like that duo, they symbolise a kind of liberation, and live on as rare examples of women refusing to settle for the smothering constraints of unsatisfying lives.
If you have watched Thelma & Louise, or plan to watch it, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Join us on Friday 19th August at 1.00pm to share your musings and hear your fellow members’ takes on this explosive film. Find out more and book your place here.
A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.