Sunday 2 January 2011

Movie Review: Thelma & Louise (1991)

Thelma & Louise is a road movie, a fugitive movie, and a buddy movie. Callie Khouri's rich screenplay and director Ridley Scott manage to find the best qualities of all three sub-genres, and they impressively avoid most cliches. Thelma & Louise is never predictable, and it has become one of the standards by which movies in these genres are defined.

Louise (Susan Sarandon) and Thelma (Gena Davis) are best friends in Oklahoma, and both are at a dead-end in life. Louise is a waitress at a cheap diner; Thelma is a housewife being controlled and emotionally trampled by her uncaring husband Darryl. The two friends embark on a short vacation getaway in Louise's Ford Thunderbird. They stop at a roadside cowboy bar en-route, where Thelma meets and gets cozy with the womanizing Harlan. When he tries to rape the almost-drunk Thelma, Louise saves her friend then shoots and kills Harlan when he insults her. The women drive away from the scene, and from then on are fugitives wanted for murder.

Thelma and Louise head for Mexico, but Louise insists that they avoid driving through Texas, due to a dark incident in her past. Sticking to the back roads, they pick-up the drifter J.D. (Brad Pitt), who for the first time ignites Thelma's passion. Meanwhile, the police, including Detective Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) descend on Darryl's house to monitor his phone and try to trace the two women.

As the chase heats up, Thelma holds up a grocery store; the two ladies overcome an Arizona state trooper; and they repeatedly encounter and finally engage a tanker truck driven by an obscene chauvinist. But the noose gets tighter, and before they make it to the border, Thelma and Louise face a stark fork in the road.

As with all road movies, Thelma & Louise is really about the trip of self-discovery that the characters need to take. Thelma's transformational trip is dramatic: from a meek wife to a confident outlaw, Thelma finds her calling and is keen to make up for lost time in a hurry. Her trigger point is the night of passion with J.D., her sexual awakening corresponding to the start of a new, dynamic, vibrant, but likely fairly short life. Geena Davis has a lot of fun steering Thelma from the wife who does not dare tell her husband that she is leaving on a short trip, to the outlaw who stuffs a police officer in the trunk of his cruiser, but only after shooting air holes into it.

Louise goes through a more subtle, inward journey. Suppressing memories of a never-revealed trauma that occurred in Texas, what Louise refuses to talk about is the cause of the entire manic adventure. As events spiral out of control around her, Louise still refuses to confront her past: not with Thelma in the car, not with Detective Slocumb over the phone, and not with herself. She is a classic tragic hero, and her flaw colours her fate. Susan Sarandon delivers an anguished, introverted performance. With mayhem all around her, there is even more going on behind her eyes as she fails to come to terms with her scars but realizes that she is coming to terms with her life.

While each woman embarks on a separate emotional journey, they are in the car together, and the ups and downs of their relationship is the glue that holds the movie together. Thelma and Louise share moments of love, hate, frustration, fun, terror and sheer exhilaration with each other, and by the end of their trip their car is holding a lifetime's worth of emotions and memories.

Lushly photographed by Adrian Biddle to showcase the rural back roads of America, Thelma & Louise is a most fulfilling, poignant and memorable journey.

All Ace Black Movie Reviews are here.

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