At some point before this movie opened, I saw a trailer and both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were in a convertible with guns in their hands. At that point, without knowing anything further, I was in. The movie turned out to be a landmark Ridley Scott film that created a media sensation that kept people talking most of the summer. It was nominated for six Academy Awards (though not Best Picture) including nods for the two stars and the director. The end of the film was iconic and much parodied and it still packs a punch today. Although it is a road picture, it also subverts a lot of the traditions of such film stories.
I understand how it is seen as a feminist picture. The subject of how men relate to women in contrast to the way women relate to each other is explored in several interesting ways. Thelma’s husband Darreyl, played by an excellent Christopher McDonald, is a possessive but disengaged spouse. He sees only what his wife can do for him or how she effects the way he will be seen. Harlan and J.D. are both exploiters of women. One might be less violent and more polite than the other, but his perception of them is the same, they are target rich environments. Jimmy, a breakout role for Michael Madsen, and Detective Slocum, the surprisingly sympathetic Harvey Keitel , both want to help the women in their crisis but have difficulty understanding why they are being shut out in very different ways. [The next year they would be antagonists Mr. White and Mr. Blonde].
Sarandon is the older more mature of the two friends, and she is the one who is most wounded at the start but we never see it. Louise is a walking functioning example of PTSD. As we get hints about events in her past, her motivations and perceptions become more understandable to us. Legal or not, her actions that start the two off as fugitives would be applauded by most in the audience. Thelma is a tougher specimen to examine. She is all contradictions. She starts off timid, then becomes liberated, and then near catatonic. She says it best towards the end of the movie:
Thelma: “But, umm, I don’t know, you know, something’s, like, crossed over in me and I can’t go back, I mean I just couldn’t live.”
At some point the empowerment of the two women overwhelms their sense of proportion. The patterns that preceded their adventures become paths they can’t avoid. Louise is blinded by her past and Thelma is resentful of it. When people complain about the end of the film, they need to keep that in mind. Thelma starts her rebellion and freedom from Darryl by simply not asking his permission. Like a teenager, she overdose the vices, drinking to excess, smoking, unencumbered sex and finally robbery. She is acting out against the father figures she sees in her life, especially the unpleasant spouse she has been trapped with. Louise runs because she has been conditioned to do so. She runs from the man who loves her, from the sympathetic police officer that wants to keep her from being killed and mostly she runs from her own past.
There is a star making turn by Brad Pitt in the film. If ever there was an example of lightning striking a career, this is it. He is all charm and hot looks and that is what blinds Thelma to his faults. Louise was suspicious from the beginning but she is that way with nearly everyone. Both women share the lead in making decisions at different points in the film. It’s not important which one made which bad choice, what is important is that they are not going to let any man choose for them. That is the subversive message of the film. I am probably blinded by not being a woman, so some of their choices seem plain stupid to me, but that did not mean I was not entertained or fascinated by these women. Twenty-five years ago, I said to my wife when the film was over, “That was a hell of a movie”. It’s still true.