Thelma and Louise

An Essay by Isabella Ulph

As the titles roll we see a road stretching to faraway blue mountains, the background music is a kind of rock'n'roll country sound, Tex-Mex, so the audience have the expectation that what they are about to see will involve a journey in the western states of America. As the film has a 15 certificate the audience expectation is that it will handle adult issues and it may include some scenes of violence, some scenes of a sexual nature and bad language may be used.

However, being a Ridley Scott film, (Blade Runner , 1492 ) the imagery of the landscape has a deeper meaning, it appears vast and deep, with forced perspective and the intensity of the light and colour lend a super- realistic look to it. So much so, that the background almost looks like a painted one, a matte, and has a surrealistic, dreamlike quality so we feel we can expect a complex and emotional experience rather than simply the telling of a story describing a journey. As the journey is an important element of the film I suppose you might describe it as a "road movie", but not in the Hope, Crosby, Lamour tradition, more the Bonnie and Clyde model with its mixture of comedy, violence and poetry. You could also say it is a "buddies" movie as the relationship between the eponymous heroines is a major element of the film.

The film, for me, is also reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with its examination of the relationship of the pair and its Western setting and its backdrop of cowboys, horses, guns, and the pursuit by the 'posse' through the characteristic Western Monument Valley landscape.

As in another example of the western genre, John Ford's The Searchers we are always aware of the difference between out and indoors, with darker interiors and bright light outside and often when the action is inside we either hear the sounds of or see the landscape or road outside through windows or doorways. The male characters, like the cowboys of old, are on the whole a bit uncomfortable in the company of women, and the women seem at first to be a bit stereotypical, Thelma being the pretty, girlish blonde who is dominated by her husband, Louise being the waitress saloon girl, good if worldly wise, but there the resemblance with the classic western ends, for our heroes are not men but women and the setting is a contemporary one where the sheriff uses modern technology such as computers and helicopters in the chase.

Thelma and Louise tells the story of two woman friends who intend to go away for a few days on a fishing trip, Thelma to escape the boredom of her marriage, and Louise to sort out her feelings about her relationship with her boyfriend. After a horrendous, brutal attempted rape at the start of the trip they find themselves on the run facing a possible murder charge. Louise had been the victim of a rape in the past and believed they had no chance of justice if they went to the police. Louise explains to Thelma that she can't go to the police as she shot the rapist after she had stopped him raping Thelma so she can't claim self defence but it is not too late for Louise, but Louise wants to go on. At this point you, too, think that there is some hope of them getting away with it as there were no real witnesses. The film has a classical narrative structure Thelma & Louise > The trip > The attempted rape & subsequent murder > The flight & chase > The death / 'escape' of Thelma & Louise. But this is taking the narrative at a superficial level for there is a complex study of both male / female and female / female relationships. It explores the dilemma of women who want to have some life of their own making and their struggle within a society with the expectations and restrictions that society places on them. It shows us how events can have a momentum of their own and can get out of control leading inexorably to tragedy. The road becomes a metaphor for life itself.

Although a number of the male characters are seen to be brutish and violent, others sexist and manipulative, this is not a anti- male film there is humour, understanding and tenderness too between the men and women. The representation of the Western scene and society conforms to the ideas we have formed about the American west. The men wear western style suits, jeans, boots and cowboy hats, and treat their womenfolk with old fashioned courtesy (as long as the women conform to a feminine stereotype), there is lots of hat raising and "ma'aming" and you feel they would all rather be off on the trail with the boys than anything else.

There is a marvellous scene where the sheriff and F.B.I. men are advising Darryl, Thelma's husband, how he should keep her talking on the phone so that they can trace the call. Darryl up till now has always spoken to Thelma as though she were a stupid child who has to be told loudly and often what to do. The F.B.I. man says he, Darryl, should "be gentle with her, women love that kind of shit" and at this the camera pans around and all the men in the room have the same rueful, embarrassed smiles and expressions on their faces. This could be on the sheriff's part embarrassment at the silliness of this approach for he is, by far, the most sympathetic male character in the film and provides the only hope for the women in their dealings with the authorities. The sheriff, played by Harvey Keital, seems to have a more enlightened attitude, but for the others you feel it is a male cultural assumption that woman are strange creatures with unfathomable needs who have to be humoured and appeased.

While on the road with the women we see the familiar symbols of the American west, the shacks in the middle of nowhere with the old grizzled men sitting in the porch, the diners with their jukeboxes and fast talking waitresses, the ubiquitous Coke cans and vending machines. The first time we see Thelma's husband he is watching American football on T.V. while eating a pizza and drinking a Budweiser, just what we've learned to recognise as the American way of life. The Western landscape is that of the long straight, bare looking highways of America stretching towards the distant blue hills. At times the cars are halted as cowboys drive cattle across and we also see the "nodding donkeys" of the oil fields (a familiar sight to Dallas fans) all of these are scenes we have learned to associate with the American west. The traffic is again as we would expect, the big archetypal American trucks all gleaming black and silver, Louise's car is another American classic, the '66 T-Bird convertible, and at the gas stations attendants appear and fill the tank, another recognisable aspect of American life. Although many of the images are familiar to us they are often represented in a startling way as when we see the desert and the start of Monument Valley not in the daylight but at night when Thelma and Louise stop by the roadside. The lighting of this scene is again rather surrealistic with the landscape appearing to be lit by natural, available light but the rear of the car is very vividly and artificially lit, giving it once more a strange almost dreamlike quality.

The use of filming techniques to tell the story is masterly as illustrated in one scene where a distressed Thelma has returned to the car after an abortive attempt to 'phone and tell her husband what has happened. We see Thelma sitting in the car, looking in the rear mirror and wiping away the tears, she begins to repair her make-up and we see an out of focus figure move into the background. Thelma sees the figure in the mirror, she looks intently, and we and she, recognise the young cowboy who was earlier asking for a lift. As the camera follows his movement across the breadth of the car we can see the emotions flitting across Thelma's features and know she is interested and attracted by him, until finally unable to see him in the rear view mirror she and we see him framed and focussed in the wing mirror, a tremendous economical means of reintroducing the character and showing us Thelma's reactions and feelings about this.

The characterisation of the two women is done in a number of ways-their dialogue, voices, hairstyles, dress, body language, make-up and mannerism. At the beginning of the film we see the two packing for the trip, Louise, the older one is neat and economical and finishes up by shutting her single piece of luggage, washing and drying her coffee mug and wiping over the sink and work surfaces of the kitchen, leaving everything neat and tidy for her return. The kitchen itself has an ordered, practical look to it indicative of the character of Louise. The clothes she wears are smart but practical for travelling. Thelma on the other hand throws everything she thinks she might need into a number of suitcases, plastic bags etc. including a gun taken from the bedside table drawer. She leaves a meal in the microwave for her husband with a note attached to a red rose in a glass, a romantic touch, on the table and after throwing everything into the back seat of the convertible has to be reminded by Louise to lock up. When asked by Louise why she brought the gun she says she's never been out of town before and "brought it just in case" and that she "didn't know what to take so I brought everything".

Thelma is rather naive and romantic; she wants to believe in romance in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. She is over excited by the prospect of freedom and longs for adventure and excitement, this is understandable when we find out that she married at sixteen and Darryl has been the only man in her life since she was thirteen or fourteen. She even buys her whisky in miniature bottles as though she can't face up to the amount she's drinking or maybe it's a hangover from her underage tippling days. Louise is more mature and worldly, she's like a big sister to Thelma, warning her of the dangers but unable to prevent her impulsive actions. It is this combination of the immature, excitement hungry Thelma and the indulgent 'big sister' Louise who, even when her instincts and experience warn against it, can't resist giving in to Thelma that results in the ensuing tragedy.

Time and time again Thelma puts them at risk by drinking too much, trusting men she should not, the horrible rapist, the hustling young cowboy, and even, in a minor way, the unseen driver of the huge lorry who waves them on to pass him and then proceeds to make obscene comments and gestures at them as they draw level, the ever romantic Thelma having just remarked on how these drivers are the knights of the road. You can understand why Louise gives into her and why she behaves as she does, the portrayal given by Geena Davis as Thelma shows us a young, beautiful, innocent, vulnerable, lovable, good hearted woman looking for a bit of excitement and fun from life, who expects the best rather than worst from the people she meets.

In a very telling scene after the killing of the would- be rapist, with Louise traumatised and unable to go on they stop at a roadside cafe for coffee and for Louise to think what they should do next. We see them, in close-up, sitting at either side of the table facing each other but not really looking at each other, the distance of the width of the table and the silence between them an indication of their state of turmoil. In response to what Louise has said Thelma says something to the effect that this is turning out to be some exciting holiday. Louise can hardly believe her ears, she retorts that they wouldn't be in the situation if it weren't for Thelma's thirst for excitement and in the ensuing close-up of Thelma's face we see the hurt and bewilderment this causes. She asks if Louise thinks she is responsible for what has happened and in the resulting silence rises to her feet and says she's going to the bathroom. The silence from Louise is made all the more dramatic by the noise of unseen dishes from the table crashing to the floor as Thelma turns away and we are left with the shot of Louise smoking and looking out of the window.

Sound is used in a very effective way throughout the film whether it is the plaintive country and western singing in the soundtrack or the sound of the road in the background or, as in this case, a very telling silence punctuated by the crash of the dishes.

There are a lot of close-up shots, as in this sequence, throughout the film as we need to be able to read the expressions of the actors and actresses. To give pace and excitement to the film, cutting is the main method used as a way of advancing the action. In one particularly terse scene we cut from the women driving on the road to a computer screen where data is appearing in the form of names and addresses and the sheriff's voice is heard reading off Louise's name and address and we know he has found out who the women from the scene of the crime are. We now know he will soon be on their trail as it cuts back to them, unaware and continuing on their journey.

To give the feeling of the movement of the journey we often see the profiled heads of the women in close-up with their hair streaming out and as the camera appears to move with them it must have been attached to the car. This results in we, the audience feeling ourselves to be making the journey with them as the camera is in effect us. The plot is also quite often advanced by the device of using a telephoned conversation where we see both ends of it as the scene cuts back and forth between the two parties. The use of cuts gives an atmosphere of excitement and pace to the film in keeping with the idea of a pursuit.

As the film progresses the relationship between the two women undergoes a radical change. Thelma who has always been the impulsive, irresponsible one who looks to Louise for guidance suddenly finds herself having to initiate action having devastated Louise by letting Louise's life savings, through her carelessness, be stolen by the young cowboy. Thelma realises it is now up to her to find a way to finance their escape. She does this in quite an extraordinary way. Having learned from the young cowboy character how to rob a store whilst pointing a gun in a polite and charming manner she decides to put her newly acquired knowledge to use and impulsively robs the next grocery store they come upon. All this without a word to Louise, who finds out only when Thelma races back to the car screaming "drive, drive". From this point on the two are equal partners and both know there will be no turning back. One crime leads to another and before they know it they are wanted for murder, armed robbery and kidnapping a police officer. Louise's character hasn't really changed but Thelma has discovered things about herself and is no longer the careless, girlish, character she once was. Thelma tells Louise " something crossed over in me, I can't go back, I just couldn't".

The final scenes of the film show the chase and for a brief moment, after a marvellous piece of driving by Louise, as good as anything in Bullit or The French Connection , it looks as though they might make it to Mexico and freedom but it's not to be. They are driving along the top of the Grand Canyon unaware, unlike the audience, that the police helicopter is flying along the canyon below, and as they come to a halt on the brink of the edge the helicopter rises and comes swooping over them.

We and they have come to the end of the road both metaphorically and physically. They are trapped; behind them lie the State Troopers and police, in front the edge of the canyon, there is no escape. We hear and see the posse raising and cocking their guns and you feel the tension and fear that someone will open fire and the women will be cut to pieces, as in the final shoot out in Bonnie and Clyde . The sheriff has already warned the government men that it is all too easy for the shooting to start when there are so many armed men under different controls involved, F.B.I., State Troopers, Police, etc.

Louise turns to Thelma but you know they cannot give up their freedom. How can they face being imprisoned when they have experienced freedom and are guilty of nothing more than fighting for survival against all the odds. The audience has no sympathy for the rapist who pushed Louise into killing him and their subsequent law breaking had a kind of Robin Hood feel to it, the only thing people lost was money or their dignity as in the case of the policeman they locked in the boot of his police car. It doesn't really come as a shock when Louise turns to Thelma and Thelma says they should "go on", and they join hands and accelerate into oblivion. It is an ending in some ways similar to that in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid as we don't actually witness their final death but we know of its inevitability. We, the audience have come to feel affection and admiration for the two women and the concluding scene lends a kind of mythic, poetic quality to the ending of what was a very satisfying and enjoyable film.

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