1991’s Thelma and Louise is a exhilarating thriller about the trouble women can get themselves in just for existing. Just being a woman can feel like a sin sometimes. The expectations put on women are often simple and stifling: look pretty, say little, be pleasing. We get a lot of direct and indirect messages that our sexuality is not our own. Of course, this is a simplification, a generalization, but it is a brutal truth about many moments of a female life. This is what Thelma & Louise addresses with a biting sass.
Louise’s act of killing is fueled by rage and revenge for Thelma’s sexual assault, but it’s implied that she was also avenging her own rape (the Texas event.) His insolence enraged her, literally setting off her trigger. She reacted out of simmering unaddressed rage. This isn’t the story of good girls, of noble warriors, of shining examples of humanity: this is a breaking bad story. The movie doesn’t offer a solution, just a counterpoint to action crime films where the audiences gets vicarious fun, thrills, and revenge through larger than life male characters. As Susan Sarandon recently pointed out, stories and characters like this are still scant.
“I’ve had it up my ass with sedate.” – Thelma
Louise has dealt with her issues by becoming a tough chick, arming herself in sarcasm and bite, but this is Thelma’s first foray into a world that hasn’t been controlled by a father or a husband, and she’s a bit green. She’s a grown woman who’s still a child, still naive of all the wonder and horror the world outside her cocoon has to offer. She hasn’t even had an orgasm yet, and this story allows her to lose her head over it. Her daze of euphoria distracts her enough to leave all their money, their small stash of hope, vulnerable to her thieving lover.
“You’ve always been crazy, this is just the first chance you’ve had to express yourself.” – Louise
Instead of easing into new adventures, this is an all-or-nothing thing for Thelma. She’s high on the recklessness of breaking her husband Darryl’s rules and running off without telling him where she’s going. The murder solidifies the permanence of Thelma’s break from her old life, but she had already made a choice that blasted apart the only life she’d ever known. It was such a small rebellion. It was just supposed to be a weekend away with a girlfriend.
For the next few weeks Khouri worked feverishly to bring Thelma and Louise to life. She infused Thelma and Louise with bits of the personalities of herself (more Louise) and her friend, country singer Pam Tillis (more Thelma.) She was also inspired by a couple of violent incidents. Back when she was a waitress at the Improv in L.A., she and Larry David got mugged in the parking by two teens with a sawed-off shotgun.
The second attack happened with her true partner in crime: Tillis. “I was the levelheaded one,” says Tillis. “Callie was hanging on to her purse, because she’d been working her ass off for every red nickel. I had to yell, ‘Callie! Quit your dogheadedness! Let! It! Go!’ She dropped her purse and we ran.” But Khouri later realized, “If I’d had a gun, I’d have killed them.” This reversal of control between the two personality types became a template for the film.
More than anything, of course, Thelma and Louise is about two friends on a road trip. The genuineness of their relationship has become a symbol for female bonds and less dangerous, hair-raising adventures: you and me against the world, against all odds, having a little fun and kicking up some dust.
Of course Thelma and Louise take that sentiment to the extreme, and decide to die rather than face their consequences. The result, that gorgeous teal 1966 Ford Thunderbird careening off a cliff, is cinematic gold. This ending also references the ending of another film that dared to show a complicated woman behaving within the confines of her expectations, and wrecking (both literally and figuratively) her life in the process: 1960’s Butterfield 8.
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