When we think of a Western, several images come to mind.
A tumbleweed rolling through a dusty town. The hero has to be the first to draw his gun. John Wayne rides off on his horse into the great wide somewhere. These stories tend to have one thing in common: a man in his natural habitat. The Old West towns, the wide open plains, the badlands are all considered to be rightfully possessed by the hero who roams them—and that hero is always a man.
Then Callie Khouri’s screenplay for Thelma & Louise flipped the script on the genre forever.
In lieu of the Western genre’s signature cowboy, Thelma & Louise featured two anti-heroes cursed by their femininity. Instead of a horse, audiences got a blue 1966 Ford Thunderbird. The scenery of mountains, oil rigs, deserts, and canyons were deserving of the genre—but served the purpose of being their escape instead of their domain.
From the first moments that best friends Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) grace the screen, we are introduced to two women who have accepted their roles in a man’s world—or so we think. Both are tragically stuck in claustrophobic, soul-sucking environments; Thelma, a housewife who caters to the every need of her emotionally immature husband and Louise, a diner waitress in a lonely relationship.
If their indoor environments act as nothing but a prison, then the outdoors is their liberation. What begins as Thelma and Louise’s drive to their cabin for a serene fishing trip to escape their humdrum lives becomes a hurried dash to flee the country as fugitives after Louise shot and killed the man who raped her best friend.
All of their misfortunes are caused by men being men in a man’s world, from Thelma’s emotionally abusive marriage to the “unspeakable” thing that happened to Louise long ago—even getting their money stolen by a drifter. But it’s a world they’re determined to take back piece-by-piece, one stretch of road at a time.
Our heroes’ journey is just that; a story of survival and desperation. Thelma’s skirt and Louise’s headscarf goes the way of tattered t-shirts and jeans. Louise throws her lipstick out of the car as she drives, and by the end of the film, both women aren’t wearing any makeup at all. Thelma’s naivete quickly chips away when she takes charge and does what needs to be done—she robs a convenience store at gunpoint to make up for letting a drifter (played by Brad Pitt) steal Louise’s life savings. As the movie gets grittier, Thelma and Louise not only get sweatier and grimier, but also tougher, finally standing on equal footing with each other before the story’s end.
It’s no wonder Geena Davis relentlessly pursued the role for a year. She was able to play two characters so flawlessly: the sheltered, ditzy Thelma, and the resilient, badass woman Thelma becomes, forever changed by the journey. But it’s Susan Sarandon who takes the wheel, giving an incredible performance just by acting with her eyes; we are told all we need to know about what happened to Louise in Texas without a word of it leaving her lips. It’s what drives Louise to protect Thelma at all costs, like an older sister would—protection which Thelma demonstrates she no longer needs after blowing up a catcalling truck driver’s oil tanker.
Debuting a 4K transfer of the film, The Criterion Collection’s edition of Thelma & Louise looks stunning, capturing the grime and dust of Ridley Scott’s landscapes while extenuating its beauty. Scott beautifully uses scenery to tell the story of two women fleeing their suffocating environments to find freedom on the road. He uses canyons, mountains, and deserts to pay tribute to the tradition of the great Western film, while not telling a story of good vs. evil.
Critics and detractors who described the film as “man-hating” back in its day tragically missed the point; it’s about women taking back the keys to control their own fates. Heroes become outlaws during times of oppression, which makes Thelma & Louise as relevant as ever today in a post-#MeToo, post-Roe v. Wade world.
So many critics and directors missed the point during its time, giving the film a well-deserved edge today. Thelma & Louise is not pretty or coy; it’s a rallying cry of frustration and rebellion. They are outlaws who realize they can’t be free in a man’s world.
But if they gotta go out, they’re gonna go out fighting.
“Thelma & Louise” is now available in 4K and Blu-ray via The Criterion Collection (featuring exclusive interviews with Ridley Scott and Callie Khouri, commentary tracks, deleted scenes, and more!)