The road movie is a Hollywood staple, but it's usually the domain of cowboys, crooks, drifters, and desperadoes.
In other words, men.
Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise  (1991) is a road movie about women. And while screenwriter Callie Khouri  (who won an Oscar for her work) borrows from Badlands , Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid , and other films, the picture's feminine emphasis imparts a fresh twist to even its most familiar elements.
The film came along at just the right time, culturally speaking. American was in the midst of a buddy movie explosion, and just when the genre seemed burned out, along came two women to give it a new lease on life.
Our heroines are two Arkansas gals on a weekend joyride. Louise (Susan Sarandon ) is a tart-tongued waitress with a blowsy good ol' gal demeanor and an absentee musician boyfriend.
Thelma (Geena Davis ) is a housewife who maintains a perky attitude despite the perpetual bad humor of her sleazoid carpet salesman husband. While Louise is brassy and pleasantly tough, Thelma is naive and unassertive; afraid to ask her husband's permission, she sneaks off while he’s at work.
The two jump into Louise's '66 T-Bird convertible , but they don't make it past the county line before trouble strikes. They stop at a roadside honky-tonk where Thelma gets tipsy, flirts with a smarmy guy and soon is being assaulted on the hood of a car. She saved from rape by the pistol-packing Louise, who plugs the assailant.
And they're off.
Thelma & Louise follows these two through adventures that range from the wildly comic to the dramatic and erotic. They pick up a polite-as-pie young cowboy who turns out to be an ex-con. Between romantic interludes he advises them on the etiquette of larceny – “Done properly, armed robbery doesn't have to be a totally unpleasant experience” – then leaves them penniless.
This charming cad is played by a young Brad Pitt , who with this character attracted the world’s attention after five years of TV roles and walk-on bits in movies. The rest, as they say, is history.
Taking matters into her own hands, Thelma robs a market. She is amazed at her transformation from mouse to cool-as-a-cucumber bandit, but Louise sees it as a growing experience. "It's the first chance you've ever had to really express yourself," she says encouragingly.
Meanwhile, an Arkansas state police officer (Harvey Keitel ) monitors their crime spree across the Southwest with a combination of bemusement at their antics and concern as the felonies pile up past the point of no return.
At the time, Thelma & Louise seemed an unlikely project for director Scott  (Alien , Blade Runner , Legend ), who had always been more at home with slick surfaces than with human relationships.
But he was deft enough to finesse the film’s downbeat ending and gloss over the script's simplistic exclamation points.
One can take exception of certain of the movie’s elements. The men depicted here are mostly caricatures of thuggish, beer-breathed boors, and one has to wonder what feminist message is being sent when women ape the most violent tendencies of the opposite sex.
Still, the engaging interplay between Davis and Sarandon and a liberal dose of raunchy redneck humor marked a big step forward in Scott's stylistic arsenal.
The performances walk a fine line between reality and the patently absurd. Sarandon and Davis are absolutely convincing as our road-burning fugitives, and the characters seem to visibly grow in stature and depth as they kiss their pasts goodbye and determine to live for the moment.
The two physically evolve as the movie progresses. Part of this is effective makeup – they lose their coiffed 'dos and blush-on to sunburned noses and wind-tangled hair as they become feral. But there's more to it than just that – watch how tightly they carry themselves at the beginning of the movie and how loose and relaxed their movements are by the end. These are terrific performances.
Typical of Scott's films, Thelma & Louise is a technical knockout. The glowing colors of Adrian Biddle's  cinematography fairly leap off the screen, and the shots are composed with a care that only points up how indifferently most films are thrown together.
Though uneven, Thelma & Louise succeeds because of its two fine stars and by offering a fresh look at an old genre. And by nailing the zeitgeist of the moment, it became one of the seminal films of the early ‘90s.
Other films in the series “Road Trip”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- August 4: It Happened One Night  (1934) Not Rated
- August 11: Badlands  (1973) Rated PG
- August 18: Little Miss Sunshine  (2006) Rated R
- August 25: Thelma & Louise  (1991) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- August 6: Harry and Tonto  (1974) Rated R
- August 13: The Straight Story  (1999) Rated G
- August 20: Vacation  (1983) Rated R
- August 27: Broken Flowers  (2005) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler  is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com . He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.