Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Thelma and Louise

I appreciate this movie for putting me back in touch with the child I used to be, the child who was just discovering the magic of the moving image, the magic that could suck you in and make you feel something different than you felt every day. If a movie struck some chord with me, I would start it again immediately after it finished, just to return to that feeling and to lose myself inside it. That kid had no idea that the study of movies, or books, for that matter, was even possible. She didn't have any aspirations or deep philosophies where movies were concerned. A movie was something that existed on a different plane of reality. In my dreams and fantasies, I could find my way back there. It was sort of like looking for the hidden gate to Narnia, which I was also obsessed with, once upon a time. Thelma and Louise makes me feel like that kid again. The only sign that I have grown up is that I resisted the urge to watch it again immediately, instead waiting until the next day.

While I can, and choose to think about this movie on a deeper level than the pure escapism the Kate of yesteryear would have enjoyed, this movie is just pure cinematic joy. It's not entirely perfect; it gets cheesy. At times, you might even describe it as overwrought. I'll go ahead and say that at certain points, it is. But great art is rarely perfect, and imperfections are another part of the nature (and joy) of the beast. Thelma and Louise is pure Hollywood, but manages to subvert Hollywood tropes at the same time. The characters are brilliantly realized, with the help of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in roles that, I'm convinced, they were born to play. Sarandon is blessed with incredibly expressive features, and a face just craggy enough to be the perfect vessel for Louise's world-weariness. This serves as a juxtaposition to Davis, who is at once oafish and beautiful, making her the perfect embodiment of youthful naivete.

Set in what I am assuming is the 1990s, this film is a sort of subversion of the buddy, or road movie, a traditionally male genre. But it draws equally on noir to discuss issues and subsequent punishment of female sexuality. Thelma and Louise, who are, as an aside, both involved with less than perfect men, embark on a road trip, escaping to have some fun and leaving the troublesome men to flounder. When they stop at a roadhouse, Thelma begins dancing with Harlan (Timothy Carhart), a relentless skirt chaser who will not take no for an answer. When the pair goes out for some fresh air, he attempts to rape her. Louise holds a gun to his head, allowing Thelma to escape. When Harlan's ignominious defeat still fails to invoke the slightest contrition (and when demands of fellatio are crudely requested) Louise shoots him.

In a scene that takes place in one of the many roadside diners, which, along with gas stations and motels, make up the sprawling Americana of the movie's setting, the film touches poignantly on issues of blame and guilt associated with rape. In a moment of frustration, Louise blurts out that they wouldn't be in this situation of it weren't for Thelma. Thelma silences with Louise with a question: "So this is my fault, is it?" Here, you can see the horror of Louise's regret wrought in the lines of her face, and in the whites of those expressive eyes I adore so much. By the end of the film, we will have discovered that Louise is herself a former rape victim, although her humiliation keeps her forever silent, only realizing itself in the raw intensity of her anger, which leaks out of her at unexpected moments, such as the one that sets the events of the film in motion.

Thelma and Louise encounter all kinds of men on their journey, but the one thing they have in common is their refusal to take the women seriously. Their frustration with these obdurate men drives more of their actions than anything else. Even when Harlan has a gun pointed at his head, he does not see any real threat. Or perhaps, being so emasculated, death seems preferable to the humiliation he is enduring. Later, the women pull over a trucker who they have seen on the road several times, forcing him, at gunpoint, to apologize for his harassment. When he refuses, the women destroy his truck. He continues to curse them as a cloud of smoke and fire mushrooms behind him.

The police are an equally fascinating representation of masculinity. Within the force there seem to be two different schools of thought. Max (Stephen Tobolowksy) will stop at nothing to see the women taken down, even if it takes an obscene amount of firepower, the oldest filmic symbol of male virility. His is the response of emasculated fear; the women's empowerment is dangerous. Thus, they need to be eliminated. Hal (Harvey Keitel), on the other hand, has a more complicated response. He perceives the women as victims. In doing so, however, he fails to take them seriously. One of my favorite moments in the movie shows Louise speaking to Hal on the phone. He says, "I feel like I know you." She quickly replies, "you don't."

Of course, I can't neglect to mention J.D. (Brad Pitt) in the compendium of maleness. While JD has a specific role to play in the narrative, his most interesting role involves the reversal of the male gaze. As many a girl would tell you, J.D. is pure sex symbol. Take off his shirt and put him in a hotel room and you've got a male that exists purely to stimulate the basest of female senses.

From the point of the manslaughter onward, the women begin driving towards the one destiny that Hollywood will allow them. In response, Thelma and Louise cease to be good girls. Not only do they cease to abide by the law, but they cease to abide by the laws of their gender. Thelma's transition is the more drastic of the two, and it is tied up in a sort of sexual reawakening that occurs when she sleeps with J.D. When she finally experiences sexual pleasure on her own terms, she becomes a different woman. As Thelma and Louise go deeper into the American wilderness, they begin to truly change, a deeper evolution that is signified outwardly by their costume and hair. They become renegades in utilitarian clothing. Louise trades her jewelry for a hat and throws her lipstick out the window. When Thelma picks up the gun, she loses her girlishness and becomes powerful in the new found self confidence that comes from self-reliance, however illicit it might be.

I've been noticing lately that many feminist films tend to take place in sort of mythic, remote landscapes that are removed from society. Once Thelma and Louise enter the buttes, the terrain becomes very otherworldly. It is a landscape that is deeply American, yet somehow alien at the same time, emblematic of the kind of cognitive dissonance that lies at the heart of a culture where rape is a hideous crime in which the victim is somehow culpable, where the American dream can just as quickly become a nightmare. From the moment the gun goes off, the tenets of noir pretty much dictate that the women are not going to make it to Mexico. Whether or not we are keenly aware of it, Thelma and Louise spend the entire movie attempting to thwart death. Meanwhile, they are driving right towards it. The audience is complicit in this pact, as we cross our fingers for them. They have to die. The difference is that both the audience and the filmmakers know we should be allowed to break the rules for them, just this once. Instead, they are martyred on the alter of cinema.

Though Thelma and Louise don't entirely escape the laws of Hollywood, they keep driving, claiming their own ending rather than allowing it to be chosen for them.

The magic of movies is the many methods they employ to tell a story. Sometimes there's nothing like a movie in the classic Hollywood tradition--one that tugs at your heartstrings and takes you on a journey. Beyond philosophy or analysis, when I think about this movie, I will always recall with fondness the terrible aching beauty of the moment when the credits begin to roll, and I remember, for the hundredth time, that one can only watch such a movie for the first time, once.

Thank you so much to Dark Realm Fox for these gorgeous Blue Ray screen caps. I was, regrettably, unable to do my own.


  1. Thelma and Louise is definitely one of those films I should have seen by now, (especially since it touches upon women's sexuality and the like.)

    Loved your write-up of the film, though! Made me more adamant to hunt it down and watch it already!

  2. If you happen to have Netflix instant, you should drop everything and watch it right now! That was how I happened to see it. Then again, it might be worth waiting for the higher video quality.

  3. I don't have Netflix! I am a UK'er so we have our alternative, LoveFilm.

    It must be going pretty cheap on Amazon or something, as they usually are!

    Thanks for the follow btw!

  4. Great insight on the male gaze reversal on JD- hadn't considered that much, but that is a great point. I really loved this movie, and your writeup was fascinating as always.

  5. Great movie, it's worth watching the Blu ray rather than an online version because the images Ridley Scott captured are very beautiful, haunting music score and fabulous performances from Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon.

    P.S. That's my site DarkRealmFox, thanks for the acknowledgement. :o)