Ridley Scott’s 1991 film Thelma & Louise showed the British director to be an astute study of American cinema, for Thelma & Louise is a quintessentially American film, and Scott revels in and overturns tropes in a gleeful, yet tightly controlled manner. Scott had already shown himself to be a master of science fiction with 1979’s Alien and 1982’s Blade Runner, and Thelma & Louise establishes the director’s talent outside the genre. It’s also arguably the last great film he ever made, and his recent output doesn’t give any indication he’ll be straying from the blockbuster malaise he’s lapsed into.
But Thelma & Louise is a supreme achievement — a road movie and a revenge fantasy that embraces both genres with conviction while slyly deconstructing them until reaching a final act where the film trips over into totally new territory. The film’s transition from straightforward run-from-the-law antics to ultra-heightened fantasy is expertly crafted. Whether that was present in Callie Khouri’s script or not, Scott certainly knew where and when to amp this film up.
Susan Sarandon stars as world-weary waitress Louise and Geena Davis stars as bored, put-upon housewife Thelma. On an impulse, the two ditch small-town Arkansas for an impromptu fishing vacation in a bright green 1966 Thunderbird, leaving behind Thelma’s chauvinist husband, Darryl (Christopher McDonald), and Louise’s erstwhile boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen) without any notice.
On the way, the two stop at a dive bar where Thelma draws the attention of the skeezy Harlan (Timothy Carhart), who eventually tries to rape her in the parking lot. Louise prevents the rape with a loaded gun, but even after she’s rescued Thelma, she shoots the guy anyway. That sets the two off on a frantic blitz across the American Southwest, headed toward Mexico, and the crime spree continues. Along the way, Thelma falls for smooth-talking college student J.D. (Brad Pitt), and Louise faces the possibility of reuniting with Jimmy. Back in Arkansas, a sympathetic cop (Harvey Keitel) tries to convince the pair to turn themselves in, but his efforts are of no avail.
Adrian Biddle’s career-best cinematography captures the gorgeous vistas of the Southwest with a yearning, wide-open feel, while shooting the police stakeout scenes with a desaturated, overly dramatic flair that hints at Scott’s intentions.
The lengths to which the police go to follow up on a lead for a single murder case seem outrageous, but these scenes aren’t rooted in reality. They’re the first clue that we’re witnessing a series of heightened events for Thelma and Louise, who have finally broken free from their societal constraints into a fantasy world of revenge and empowerment, where they finally have the upper hand over the forces that have kept them down.