THELMA & LOUISE: Icons & Outlaws [Criterion Review]

Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon drive into legend

The Criterion Collection

[This review contains full spoilers for 1991’s Thelma & Louise]

All I’ve ever known about Thelma & Louise was how it ended. 

Somehow searing itself into the cultural consciousness to such a degree that a boy who was 11 years old when the film came out knew all about it, the ending of Thelma & Louise was iconic, oft parodied, and flung far and wide before the rise of “spoiler culture”. 

Yes, Thelma & Louise grasp hands and drive their convertible full speed over the edge of the Grand Canyon in the final moments of the film. Virtually everyone who pays any attention to cinema knows this full well. 

And yet.

It turns out I really knew nothing about the ending of Thelma & Louise.

Because it’s not the plot mechanic or the writing or the “spoiler” of knowing how it ends that makes Thelma & Louise such a masterful film and helps it to stand out among other films of its generation as one of the very best. You really need to see and experience Thelma & Louise in its entirety for the ending to register.

Geena Davis’ Thelma is saddled at home with a verbally abusive and disinterested high school sweetheart of a husband in Christopher McDonald’s Darryl. Susan Sarandon’s Louise is waiting tables and has seen a bit more of the world than Thelma, for good or for ill. They’re headed out of town for a little weekend trip and nothing will ever be the same again. It’s quite remarkable how quickly writer/producer Callie Khouri and director Ridley Scott pull us into the world of Thelma & Louise and compel the audience to fall in love with these two ladies. And their journey from “everywoman” to “outlaw” happens simultaneously quickly and at a perfectly paced rhythm. Just getting away for the trip is a bit of a miracle for Thelma, who just never tells her philandering husband she is leaving. But it only takes one night on the town before they encounter the smooth talking Harlan (Timothy Carhart) at a honkey tonk and he’s sexually assaulting Thelma in the parking lot. Louise has a past, something that happened in Texas, that we never fully quite learn about… but something makes Louise a wild card, and she shoots Harlan dead in that parking lot and soon our girls are on the run through the American southwest in a classic convertible, simultaneously freer than they’ve ever been in life and pursued by the full extent of United States law enforcement. 

A modern western in the truest sense, it matters that our heroes are women and that their trusty steed is a 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible. This is a new western for a new (1991) age, with women on the run trying to sort out their freedom and their fate against the gorgeous backdrop of the American West. It’s also paced and performed incredibly well, with the tension ratcheting up ever higher, but with Thelma and Louise never losing their grounding as fully fleshed out and authentic feeling women. As their situation grows more and more urgent, they’re swept up into new crimes as they attempt to flee to Mexico. Harvey Keitel’s Hal and Stephen Tobowlowsky’s Max are top law agents in heavy pursuit, with Hal growing increasingly perplexed and charmed by these women who simply aren’t behaving in a way he can compute. 

Thelma’s overall suppression in life, sexual and relational, seems to have stunted her growth and made her almost paralyzed when it comes to making decisions for herself. Her friendship with Louise is a threat to Darryl and as Thelma is able to cast off her various suppressions, her confidence and worldliness take off running. She has an eye-opening sexual encounter with J.D. (a head-turning young Brad Pitt) and begins to really come into her own and start taking charge of things just when Louise needs her the most. Louise, on the other hand, seems on the run from more than just her murder of Harlan. And when that same young looker J.D. absconds with every last dollar Louise has ever saved, she needs that newly invigorated Thelma. 

We ultimately end up at the edge of the Grand Canyon. And the magic of the movies smash into the reality of life for young women in 1991. Again, I’ve always known that they drive off that cliff. But I could never have predicted how loaded with power and meaning that moment would be. What Ridley Scott does with that final moment is to cut and freeze while Thelma and Louise’s convertible is still on an upward trajectory. “Let’s keep going”, Thelma says to Louise. They share a familial kiss and they drive into eternity. With Scott stopping the shot where he does, the romance of cinema allows us to see Thelma & Louise as a forever triumph. A tome for female liberation or empowerment. Women taking their futures into their own hands and driving off into the sunset unencumbered. It’s nothing short of majestic and a testament to the enduring power of cinema.

Of course, there’s also the reality. What happens one or two seconds after that final cut away from the car. There’s the harsh reality of gravity and the ever more vice-like grip of the law closing in on our heroes. There’s death or disempowerment and Thelma and Louise must choose. 

Audiences can walk away from Thelma & Louise deciding for themselves if this is a tale of liberation and empowerment or an indictment of the suppression of women in modern America. But either way, Thelma & Louise is such a finely crafted and seminal film that one might be tempted to call it a masterpiece. Khouri wrote and produced something singular and Davis and Sarandon imbue these characters with the magic of life. It’s some of the best work of Davis and Sarandon’s formidable careers. Scott directs with his signature style and ensures that the images and sounds of Thelma & Louise are unmistakable. The music, the cinematography, the production design, the ensemble casting… it all clicks into something unmistakably iconic, even if you do know where it’s all headed in the end. 

The Package

While Criterion is releasing Thelma & Louise in the premier 4K HDR format, I was only given the opportunity to review the Blu-ray release. That said… hot damn this movie looks absolutely incredible. Someday I’d love to see this on the big screen, but for now the Adrian Biddel cinematography and the canyons and highways of the American southwest look simply stunning “only” in HD in this new 4K resolution transfer. 

Packed with original marketing materials and a 10th anniversary retrospective, as well as commentaries, and deleted and extended scenes, Criterion makes it easy to recommend a first time spin or a revisit of Thelma & Louise. This was honestly a revelation for me, a first time viewer, and I now consider this to be among Ridley Scott’s very best films, not to mention one of the great American films of my lifetime. 

And I’m Out.

Thelma & Louise is now available on 4K UHD & Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

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