One of Thelma & Louise‘s many scumbag men refers to the film’s troublemaking titular heroines as “You bitches from hell!” It’s a telling summation of ditzy Thelma (Geena Davis) and maternal Louise (Susan Sarandon), two mild-mannered nobodies-turned-desperadoes whose odyssey across the Southwest in the summer of 1991 made them feminist icons for a generation of women. But what stands out more than anything about Ridley Scott’s epic of estrogen empowerment is how transparently one-sided its look at male-female relations remains 12 years later. Thelma & Louise go on the run for killing a drunken prick who tried to rape Thelma in a bar parking lot; regardless of whether this despicable lout deserved to died, what’s shocking is that he’s portrayed as the typical late-20th-century guy. From Thelma’s buffoonish husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald) to hunky thief J.D. (Brad Pitt) and Louise’s greaser boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen), every man in the film is either an untrustworthy smooth operator, a slick romantic with latent violent tendencies, or an abusive monster with a passion for brutality or domination, and it’s this kind of clear cut black-and-white world which Scott and screenwriter Callie Khouri’s ladies revolt against.
The film’s only decent male figure is Harvey Keitel’s Hal Slocumb, the compassionate Arkansas cop who’s hot on the duo’s trail, but—as befitting a story that presents testosterone as a dangerous enemy of female independence—he’s barely heard from except during police procedural sequences in which he interviews suspects, taps phone lines, and argues with superiors in an unconvincing Southern accent. Scott’s widescreen compositions capture the expansiveness of the heat-soaked Southwest plains; however, with the exception of a stunning Joan of Arc-inspired ending, Scott’s gift for slick visual splendor is wasted on a run-of-the-mill Bonnie and Clyde-ish tale posing as profound social statement. Thelma & Louise’s crime spree is a symbolic rejection of the oppressed victim status men have forced women to accept, and, as a result of Davis and Sarandon’s commanding performances, is frequently an exhilarating ride. Yet because the only way these outlaw martyrs can reclaim their freedom is to nobly strike back against a society characterized by male-propagated sexism and objectification—in one of many instances of overkill, a truck driver, besides simply gesturing obscenely to the women, even has mud flaps with silvery nude women decals protecting his truck’s tires—Thelma & Louise‘s feminist call to arms winds up sounding woefully simple-minded.