As a director, Ridley Scott has always had a certain reticence to embrace the urgency of the current day. Though he is never less than competent in terms of form and as a director of actors, he remains, even today, a stylist and a lover of the physical design, cultural symbols, and lingo that characterize a specific era. His best films (Blade Runner, Alien) called for immense design work, the crafting of vehicles and creatures, and the imagining of a culture far removed from our current standings; Gladiator and The Duellists bloomed largely due to exhaustive detailing and accuracy of historical costume design, if not historical events exactly. Life in the present boxes Scott in creatively, as he is in a way required to show us a world we will recognize as the same one that we will see when we exit the theater. That world doesn’t bore Scott necessarily but it limits him which is partially what makes A Good Year, G.I. Jane, and White Squall his most neglected works. He’s a natural, dutiful Hollywood director with a deep love for the transportive power of historical epics, adventure flicks, and action spectacles.
Along with Matchstick Men (a strong, witty work bungled by what I like to call a “p.s.” ending), Thelma & Louise can be considered a memorable exception to this rule. The story of an unloved housewife and a fed-up waitress who plan a mad-dash to Mexico following the shooting of a would-be rapist is about as ripped-from-the-headlines as it got in 1991, but the vast ocean of red rock formations of the west, the dusty Americana of the open road, and an old-fashioned on-the-lam tale give Scott plenty to chew on stylistically. For as much as Thelma & Louise is a road movie about two best friends, it is also a western to its very bone, with plenty of gunplay, hard-drinking, and conflicting notions on outlaw justice to back up that claim, not to mention one smokin’ hot would-be cowboy.
The would-be cowboy, played by a young, intensely charming Brad Pitt, is an overdue escape—the perfect fantasy for a woman whose bullheaded, condescending hubby has more interest in ESPN and a punctual dinner than he has in giving her an orgasm, kissing her, or even taking out the garbage. Such is the life of Thelma (Geena Davis), who slaves in her cluttered abode to appease her temperamental husband, Darryl (the great Christopher McDonald), whom she ultimately ditches, without warning, to go out for a girl’s weekend of fishing, drinking, and flirting with her best friend, Louise (Susan Sarandon). A full-time waitress at a local diner with a brooding yet loving fiancé (Michael Madsen), Louise is hesitant to cut loose even before she watches a devious charmer (Timothy Carhart) pick up Thelma at a honky-tonk bar. But when the charmer attempts to rape Thelma in the parking lot and invites Sarandon to suck his dick, the fire-haired Louise is obliged to shoot him dead.
It’s baffling now to comprehend the hubbub that was mounted upon the release of Thelma & Louise, which was derided by a contingency of critics for its violence (there’s very little) and its particular brand of feminism, which thankfully avoids blatant sloganeering but can’t help indulging in a few “how did your mother raise you?” moments. This is not to say that Hollywood has grown in any truly meaningful way in terms of offering complex leading roles to females or, for that matter, making more films that deal directly with problems that face women specifically. Strong-willed female leads are more prevalent and popular (Million Dollar Baby, Winter’s Bone, and Tarantino’s Kill Bill diptych, just to name a few), but they often are about how a woman finds her place in male-dominated hierarchies and often involve a hunt for a man. In short, Thelma & Louise is more radical in the sense that the men in the movie are largely in search of the women and the women are largely ambivalent toward the men.
Then there’s that cowboy the girls pick up not very long after blowing away Carhart and catching the attention of investigator Hal Slocumb, the film’s most sympathetic male character, played wonderfully by an unlikely Harvey Keitel. Scott and screenwriter/co-producer Callie Khouri here take the male gaze for a spin, with Scott training his camera on an often shirtless Pitt, who exudes infinitely more charisma than any cowboy John Wayne ever played. (In contrast, Davis is deglamorized in increments as the film goes on, appearing in a frumpy, cheesy bed gown opposite Pitt’s tanned abs and pectorals.) But this cowboy is also a con man with his eyes set directly on Thelma and an envelope of money Louise got from her would-be fiancé. Scammed out of their cash, the best friends continue on their way to Mexico by staging hold-ups and wreak endless havoc on any tongue-wagglin’, foul-mouthed hillbilly that crosses their path.
An escape from a male-centric world is what Thelma & Louise are after, but Thelma & Louise is more comfortable as escapist entertainment than it is in thoughtful critique. Scott can’t help but lionize both his leads (especially Louise) and only intermittently confronts ever-present themes of sexuality with kid gloves. It is, in this case, not the Molotov cocktail many perceived it to be, but Scott’s film remains an immaculately paced entertainment of strong emotions and buoyant humor to this day, with a beautiful, expansive view of the west crafted by Scott and DP Adrian Biddle—a collaboration that proved less fruitful with 1492: Conquest of Paradise. And Davis and Sarandon, both doing what might prove their liveliest and most personal work, are backed up by a stellar supporting cast, rounded out by Jason Beghe, as an unlucky state trooper, and Stephen Tobolowsky, as Keitel’s superior. In the realm of popular American cinema, which will more than likely remain fundamentally misogynistic until the lights go out, Thelma & Louise rightly maintains its status as an oddity. But a Catherine Breillat film, it is not.
On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, Thelma & Louise has been given a glorious 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer from MGM with barely a hint of digital manipulation. The resolution here is quite admirable, especially when you take notice of the fine detailing of clothes, low-rent hotels, dilapidated gas stations, and household interiors that is instantly superior to the DVD quality. The red rock formations, peerless blue skies, and green farmland show off immense clarity and impeccable contrast. A ringing endorsement is also due for the DTS 5.1 HD audio transfer, which beautifully captures the dense mix of dialogue, score, and atmosphere noise that director Ridley Scott employed. Dialogue is clear and out front throughout and there's a very careful balance maintained between the echoing blues-guitar score and the wide open sonic landscape of the American west. Beautiful work, all around.
MGM comes prepared here as well, though the benefits are less substantial. First and foremost, there are two stellar commentaries. The more fascinating one features Scott alone, who pontificates on his style and a variety of narrative decisions, while the more entertaining one features Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, and writer/co-producer Callie Khouri offering anecdotes and speaking candidly about the production. There's also an hour-long, three-part look at the inception, production, and reception of the film that is quite informative. There is a certain curiosity to the deleted and extended scenes and a five-minute featurette but they are cumulatively pretty pointless, if not intermittently interesting (look for Catherine Keener in a deleted scene as Keitel's wife). The same could be said about a storyboard featurette that details the final chase scene. A music video for "Part of You, Part of Me," the film's theme song, and trailers are also included.
Populist genre filmmaking and a legitimately unique rethinking of genre structure are both present in Thelma & Louise, which makes its wrong-headed reputation as a radical work all the more frustrating.