Saturday, September 24, 2016

Stubs – Thelma & Louise

Thelma & Louise (1991) Starring: Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Callie Khouri. Produced by Ridley Scott and Mimi Polk Gitlin. Runtime 129 minutes. US. Color. Action, Adventure

Sometimes you have to see a film because you’ve heard so much about it or that it’s considered part of the popular culture to the point it is referenced in other films, TV shows, and stories. Such is the case with Thelma & Louise, Ridley Scott’s 1991 homage to bad decisions.

Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) is married to a controlling man, Darryl (Christopher McDonald). Thelma seems to be genuinely afraid of him, because when Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) calls about the plans they have to go away for the weekend, Thelma still hasn’t asked permission to go. And she doesn’t, stealing away, with pretty much all of her clothes and a gun her husband had given her. Rather than confronting Darryl, she leaves a note. The two head out in Louise's 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible for a two-day vacation in the mountain cabin of Louise’s boss. Out on the road, they make their first bad call.

Louise (Susan Sarandon) and Thelma (Geena Davis) set out for two-day vacation.

Thelma has lived a sheltered life and wants to have some fun right away. They stop for a drink at a cowboy bar, The Silver Bullet, where the women are hit on by Harlan Puckett (Timothy Carhart). Thelma is naïve and lets Harlan buy her drinks and dance her dizzy. Louise is more controlled and while she dances with a man, she doesn’t lose her wits. She knows they should leave, but Harlan takes Thelma outside into the parking lot to get some air.

Harlan Puckett (Timoth Carhart) takes a naive Thelma out to the parking lot with the intent to rape her.

While they’re outside, Harlan gets fresh, but when Thelma rejects his advances, saying she’s married, Harlan loses control. He hits her and starts to rape her over the hood of a car when Louise shows up with Thelma’s gun. Harlan stops at gunpoint, but as the women walk away, he yells sexual profanities after them. Louise loses her temper and fires, killing him with a shot through his black heart; bad decision number two for our “heroes”. Thelma and Louise flee the scene, narrowly escaping multiple accidents as they do.

Louise comes to Thelma's aid with a loaded gun.

Thelma wants to go to the police, but Louise says that because Thelma was seen drinking and dancing with Harlan, no one will believe he tried to rape her. Afraid that she will be prosecuted, Louise decides to run away and Thelma decides to accompany her (bad decision number three).

Louise contacts her boyfriend, Jimmy Lennox (Michael Madsen), and asks him to send her money, equivalent to her life savings via Western Union to Oklahoma City. Jimmy agrees. On the way, Thelma and Louise come across a young hitchhiker, who claims to be a student, named J.D. (Brad Pitt). Thelma is attracted to him and convinces Louise to let him ride with them.

Michael Madsen plays Louise's boyfriend, Jimmy Lennox.

By now the police have started their investigation into Harlan’s murder and have narrowed their search to Thelma and Louse.

For reasons Louise won’t reveal, she wants to find a way to get to Mexico without going through Texas, which Thelma points out is the state between Oklahoma and Mexico.

When Louise goes to pick up the money, she discovers that Jimmy has come to see her. He wants to know what’s going on and to spend some time with her. He gets two rooms at the motel and Louise deposits Thelma in one, leaving the money with her. J.D., who had been chased off by Louise, comes back and talks Thelma into letting him in. This is bad decision number four.

A young Brad Pitt provides eye-candy as J.D.

While Louise and Jimmy talk about their relationship in one room, with Jimmy asking her to marry him and her politely refusing, J.D. tells Thelma about his past as a robber. He even demonstrates his technique to her.
In the morning, after Jimmy leaves, Thelma tells Louise about her night of passion with J.D. When Louise asks about the money, Thelma tells her that it’s still in the motel room, where she has left J.D. alone. Returning to the motel room, they find that J.D. has taken Louise's money and left.

For the first time, Louise is distraught and frozen with indecision, so a guilty Thelma rises to take charge. Using the same techniques J.D. had shown her, Louise robs a convenience store while Thelma waits in the car. (Can you say bad decision number five?)

Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) expresses sympathy for Thelma and Louise's plight.

Meanwhile, the FBI is getting closer to catching the fugitives. They question J.D. and Jimmy and are wiretapping the phone line at Darryl's house. Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) discovers the event that Louise experienced in Texas and, during a couple of brief phone conversations, expresses sympathy for her predicament and pledges to protect her, but he is unsuccessful in his attempts to persuade her to surrender.

On the road, Thelma and Louise run across a truck driver (Marco St. John) who makes obscene gestures at them as they drive by. He doesn’t realize who he is messing with.

The next morning, when a state trooper (Jason Beghe) stops them, he is about to find out who they are on the police radio when Thelma holds him at gunpoint and locks him in the trunk of the cruiser. Louise takes his gun and ammunition and they leave.

State Trooper (Jason Beghe) worries for his life after stopping Thelma and Louise.

Later, they encounter the same truck driver again. They pull him over and demand an apology, but when he refuses, they fire at the tanker the truck is towing, causing it to explode.

Thelma and Louise teach a trucker driver (Marco St. John) a lesson he won't soon forget.

By now, time is starting to run out on Thelma and Louise. They manage to elude a police pursuit but are finally cornered by the police officers only 100 yards from the edge of the Grand Canyon. Detective Slocumb arrives on the scene, but he is refused the chance to make one last attempt to talk the women into surrendering themselves.

Thelma and Louise decide not to surrender.

Rather than be captured and spend the rest of their lives in jail, Thelma proposes that they keep going. After a kiss, Louise steps on the accelerator and the car flies out over the canyon. The final still frame of the film leaves little doubt about the outcome. This is not a happy ending by a long shot unless you consider that the women are deciding for themselves how things will end. This self-determined, though fatal ending has become iconic, quickly becoming a part of American culture and even parodied in Wayne’s World 2 (1993).

The film ends with one of most iconic shots from a 1990s film.

Thelma & Louise has many of the same characteristics as film noirs do. Over and over in many of those films, the plots get underway when someone decides that they can’t go to the police because their story won’t be believed. Maybe they have a shady past or a general distrust of authority, but the protagonist does the opposite of what makes sense. And like a lie, one bad decision gets followed by another as they get themselves into further trouble and eventually find themselves in real peril.

Bad decisions are made by everyone in this film. While the women’s drive the film storylines, men make them to. Am I the only one that doesn’t smart ass someone holding a gun on them? What’s the best outcome Harlan could have hoped for by telling an angry woman holding a gun to blow him? Or the truck driver for not apologizing? Like the bad choices, Thelma & Louise make the men ones that go against common sense.

And what is a film noir without a femme fatale, which in this film is provided by beefcake J.D. While the film is best known for its iconic ending, it is also remembered for making Brad Pitt a household name. He had been acting in films since 1987, but Thelma & Louise put him on the map, so to speak. The film features him as eye-candy for the ladies. And like a good femme fatale, the protagonist's trust in him is punished as he runs off with their money. He did say he was a robber.

Of the two female leads, Susan Sarandon is the more accomplished of the two. She got her start in films with Joe (1970) and has worked steadily since then. Before Thelma & Louise, she had already appeared in such films as Lady Liberty (1971), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Pretty Baby (1978), King of the Gypsies (1978), The Hunger (1983), The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Bull Durham (1988).

Geena Davis was a model before being cast in Tootsie (1982). Her first big break came when she was cast in the quirky sitcom Buffalo Bill (1993), starring Dabney Coleman. She had a major role in the remake of The Fly (1986) and Beetlejuice (1988). She would receive an Academy nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work in The Accident Tourist (1988).

Both characters are interesting and flawed. At the beginning of the film, Louise is the stronger of the two. She is portrayed as an independent woman who has a boyfriend that she can manage without. She is the decision-maker for the first part of the movie: she organized this weekend getaway, she picked the bar to stop at, she decided to shoot to kill Harlan, she decides to run, etc. Thelma at this point is a naïve sheltered housewife who doesn’t seem to have a lick of sense when it comes to the world. She is the one who invites J.D. into her room and she is the one who loses their nest egg.

When Louise becomes frozen with worry, after J.D. takes off, Thelma suddenly grows a backbone. She is the one who decides to commit armed robbery. She is the one who pulls the gun on the Highway Patrolman. During that incident, Thelma is giving orders and Louise is struggling to follow, as an example, shooting the AM/FM radio instead of the police radio.

By the end of the film, the women are equals, so to speak, and jointly make the decision to commit suicide rather than face the uncertainty of being judged by the legal system.

However, I almost find it difficult to believe these women would be friends at all. They don’t seem to have much in common. There is no hint that these are childhood friends who have stuck together through thick and thin. The incident in Texas seems to be what drove Louise to Arkansas and the story suggests this is where they became friends, but they seem to be such polar opposites that you wonder where and why a friendship would bloom. Even in male buddy films, there has to be a reason for the men to be thrown together, whether planned or accidental. In this film, the women plan to do something together, but I don’t think the film lays down any foundation as to why.

A lot has already been written about the feminist qualities of the film. Presenting women as strong characters is overdue and the depiction of men is at times, spot on. Are there men like that truck driver who think women like overt sexual gestures? Sorry to say, but yes there are. Are there men, like Harlan, who think they can take advantage of a drunken woman? Again, regrettably yes. And are there husbands, like Darryl, who run their homes like their own little fiefdoms and dominate their wives? You betcha. Men come in all types, like women; many of which are flawed and damaged people, so the depiction of men is not out of line, though not representative of the entire gender.

Jimmy, Louise’s boyfriend, is depicted as a decent guy, but there is a backstory of neglect that the film hints at. A traveling musician, Jimmy apparently is away a lot of the time and doesn’t really appreciate the woman Louise is until it’s almost too late. He proposes marriage, which she declines because she doesn’t want to drag her down with him. But he also gives her up to authorities, as they refer to information they got from him helping to track them down, even though he told Louise he wouldn’t tell anyone about her.

Harvey Keitel’s Slocumb is depicted as the only truly decent man in the film; it needed to have at least one to rescue the gender from the trash bin. He seems to care about the women’s well-being, but for reasons that aren’t revealed in the film. He treats them with dignity, but his good intentions cannot stop the trajectory that they’re already on. This character is not really developed as much as it could be and there are apparently some deleted scenes that might have done that. But we are left to review the film as presented not as what it could have been.

While Thelma & Louise deals with some very serious subjects: rape, murder, and robbery; the film does have its moments of humor. When the police stake out Darryl’s house waiting for Thelma to call, they’re shown getting wrapped up in a movie on television to the point they groan when Darryl changes the channel to some sporting event. And there is the ganja smoking bicyclist who comes across the state trooper locked in his trunk. Rather than helping release him, the cyclist blows smoke into one of the air holes Thelma had shot in the lid. But these moments seem to take away from the film, padding its length, without really adding anything to the story.

The film was a success, though not a runaway hit, making $45 million on a budget of $16.5 million. On the critical side, the film received many accolades, including six Academy nominations, including two for Best Actress (Davis and Sarandon), Best Cinematography, Best Director and Film Editing and winning for Best Original Screenplay. But more than that, Thelma & Louise led to more films featuring women, you know how Hollywood loves a trend. Some of them were a success, A League of Their Own (1992), which starred Davis in a leading role, while others, like Cutthroat Island (1995), which also featured Davis in a gender-bending swashbuckler, would leave its studio, Carolco Pictures, bankrupt, though there are many more issues with the film than the female lead.

While Thelma & Louise is flawed, it is still worth watching, especially if you have never seen it. If nothing else, there are references in other films that will make sense after viewing. For me, the film shows that even strong women can make bad decisions. If you’re looking for a great film about women and their issues, then you might find it here as well. But as with beauty, any message is in the eyes of the beholder.

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