Thelma & Louise: a tale of freedom and independence found and misused with devastating consequences

Ridley Scott, “Thelma & Louise” (1991)

Two best friends – one a waitress whose musician boyfriend frequently leaves her on her own when he goes on tour, the other a naive and docile housewife whose husband treats her like a slave – decide to go on a weekend drive to a cabin for some fishing. On their way, they stop at a bar where the housewife, Thelma (Geena Davis) flirts and dances with a stranger. The stranger takes Thelma into the parking lot behind the bar where he attempts to rape her – but the waitress friend Louise (Sarah Sarandon) quickly stops the rape and threatens to shoot the stranger. The stranger swears and shouts vulgarities at the two women, so Louise shoots him. The women then flee the scene, leaving the stranger to die.

Thus begins “Thelma & Louise”, a combination road movie / fugitive comedy drama of two unlikely outlaws who descend deeper into crime but who discover and revel in an unexpected though fleeting freedom and independence from social and cultural restrictions and limitations. The women decide to flee to Mexico but Louise objects to travelling directly there via Texas for reasons never revealed in the film. They decide to take instead the scenic route through Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. Along the way they pick up a young drifter JD (Brad Pitt), to whom Thelma is attracted. While Louise obtains her life’s savings from her boyfriend Jimmy, Thelma sleeps with JD and learns that he is a thief currently on parole. Later the two women discover JD has taken Louise’s money; Louise is so upset that Thelma takes charge of their situation – by robbing a convenience store.

Meanwhile Arkansas police, led by Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel), investigate the murder of the stranger at the bar and connect Thelma and Louise to his murder after eyewitnesses report seeing Louise’s 1966 Ford Thunderbird car leaving the parking lot soon afterwards. Slocumb sympathises with the two women – he apparently knows what may have happened to Louise in Texas – but is hamstrung by other members of the police force involved in investigating the women’s crimes and bringing them to justice, especially after they lock up a New Mexico police officer in the boot of his car and then blow up a petrol tanker after its driver abuses them and refuses to apologise. The women are soon cornered by police and other law and order authorities on the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and with Slocumb prevented from talking to them, they must decide whether to give themselves up or go down fighting.

The improbable plot is very straightforward yet allows its main characters the luxury of becoming fully fledged and sympathetic people. Starting out as one-dimensional female stereotypes, with all the ditziness one may expect of them, Thelma and Louise end up becoming resourceful and resilient women even as they continue making often stupid if desperate decisions. The women do not show very much self-awareness, and this perhaps ends up being a significant flaw for both of them … and the film as well. The male characters around Thelma and Louise are portrayed as inadequate in some way: Thelma’s husband is a boor, Louise’s boyfriend is rather passive, JD is an opportunistic thief and Slocumb, for all his sympathy for the women, is restrained by his employer hell bent on locking up the women. The society in which Thelma and Louise live is portrayed as a highly patriarchal one hooked on country-and-western music (with its tales of women being mistreated by their menfolk) and where women are expected to know their place as subservient second-class citizens.

As the movie continues, and the scenery changes from human-dominated urban and rural dreariness into magnificent desert landscapes (mirroring the women’s internal development from being trapped by social and cultural conventions and expectations into beings of free spirit), the plot starts to wilt so sketches such as the encounters with the New Mexico police officer and the petrol tanker driver are needed to keep audiences tagging along. While these are amusing, they add very little to the women’s character development and even suggest a sadistic side to them in spite of the abuse from the petrol tanker driver. Ultimately for all the freedom and independence the women discover, they end up not using their newfound liberty well – despite their physical freedom, mentally they are still trapped by their society’s ways of thinking.

Supposedly a work about two characters who discover freedom and regain control over their lives, in a way “Thelma & Louise” is actually a pessimistic film about how the consequences of hastily or foolishly made decisions can end up boxing characters into a path where they keep making bad decisions and end up paying for them … with their lives. The characters may think they are free – but the circumstances of their lives that lead them into the encounter with the stranger at the bar, with the devastating results that encounter produces, demonstrate how unfree they are, in mind and feeling.