Ridley Scott revisited: Thelma & Louise | A feminine journey ahead of its time

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We pay a return visit to Ridley Scott’s 1991 roadtrip drama, Thelma & Louise – a film decades ahead of its time.

If you didn’t know when Thelma & Louise was made, and you stripped away some of the specific 1990s trappings of the piece, you might be forgiven for thinking it was a post-Me Too film.

In truth, it originated almost out of nowhere from the mind of Callie Khouri, a line producer of music videos who in the early hours of the morning in 1988 was struck by a plot revelation. The women who would become the titular Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer slammed right into her head as she drove, as she told Vanity Fair: “I saw, in a flash, where those women started and where they ended up. Through a series of accidents, they would go from being invisible to being too big for their world to contain, because they’d stopped cooperating with things that were absolutely preposterous, and just became themselves.”

It feels like the biggest surprise and revelation of a film from 1991. Women simply were not portrayed then as we see Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon essay both of these characters. These weren’t reductive objects of desire, or designed to fuel the cathartic advancement of male protagonists. They were the kind of living, breathing, strong-willed women who grow into themselves who always existed, even in the face of the long-existent patriarchy. They were women like Khouri, no shrinking violet who herself, who had her own brushes with violent men and an out of control criminal society.

Khouri had also worked with toxic directors and musicians during the 80s, touring with bands, facing down rampant egos and powerful men with a complete confidence in what they could get away with. One of her best friends was Amanda Temple, husband of director Julian (and mother of Juno), her producing partner, who inspired by the success of her husband, suggested they develop the script Khouri ended up penning as an indie feature. At the end of the 80s, Hollywood simply didn’t want to know.

This doesn’t feel surprising. That a male producer would declare Thelma and Louise as “basically detestable and unsympathetic, will never get the audience’s support.” Of course that’s how they would think. This was a piece about female rage at male entitlement, before the very notion of masculine toxicity had even entered the cultural parlance. Khouri and Temple were trying to make a film decades ahead of its time. Which is perhaps why Ridley Scott, a director who had already twice over made films that continue to have a powerful afterlife today, was the one man who seemed to ‘get it’.

Scott recalled recently to Total Film how Khouri, via his producing partner at the time Mimi Volk, brought the project to him: 

I read it, and I thought it was a comedy. She said, “Comedy?” I said, “Callie, a lot of this is pretty funny.” She’d brought it to me to produce. So I went around various directors. There were very few female directors at that point. Whereas today, I’d have gone for a female director. So I went to guys. One of them said, “I’ve got a problem with the women.” I said, “Well, that’s the whole point of the story, you dope. They have a voice.”

Though Scott might appear a traditional example of old-fashioned, call a spade a spade machismo, there has always been a sense in his filmmaking that women are more than just objects. The presentation of Sigourney Weaver in Alien is a key early example, with Scott intentionally stripping away the feminised apparel she was originally dressed in, aware she could stand on her own merits. Even in his lesser films, such as Legend or Someone to Watch Over Me, Scott at least had the intention of giving his women agency. “I saw what was unique about it immediately. Women tended to get parts as somebody’s girlfriend; this was about no one else but them. It had substance, it had a voice, and it had a great outcome, which you could never change. Their decision was courageous, to carry on the journey and not give in.”

Volk nonetheless didn’t necessarily think it fitted Scott’s sensibilities to direct himself, initially, given his established penchant for building worlds or crossing oceans (as he did in Black Rain), but Scott saw the comic potential mentioned above – specifically the idea that audiences would get a kick out of seeing such toxic men, such as the perverted trucker, get their comeuppance in cathartic fashion. Khouri initially imagined something more raw, something perhaps more serious, but Scott provided the roadmap to a film that balances pain and trauma with comic timing and, in a certain manner, joy. It becomes about liberation rather than subjugation.

Khouri and Temple ultimately agreed that Scott’s backing was worth letting him option the script, with the proviso he was able to attract big name female talent to the key roles. Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer, both at the peak of their careers as leading ladies in Hollywood, were attached. Scott talked to multiple directors including Bob Rafelson (a product of the early New Hollywood, perhaps best known for Five Easy Pieces and collaborations with Jack Nicholson), Kevin Reynolds (who would soon find fame with Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves) and Richard Donner (of Superman, The Omen and Lethal Weapon fame). Very quickly, Scott realised he was actually talking himself into the job.

You can see why. Despite Thelma & Louise being the most personal and grounded tale Scott had attempted to that point, he shoots wide, capturing the grand vistas of the American landscape he seldom gets the opportunity to do in later films, as he bounces around time and the globe. As our leads travel across the southern states on their journey, their open top car representing their newfound freedom from oppressive men and cosseting jobs, Scott enjoys presenting the American wilderness of mountains and open roads as a visualisation of their escape. Though Pfeiffer went off and made JFK-era romance Love Field instead, she was the one who convinced Scott to bite the bullet and take the directing job.

With Scott in the chair, Meryl Streep (who would have made an excellent Louise) and Goldie Hawn came and went as the titular duo. Davis, with some cache in the bank at this stage thanks to her Oscar for Lawrence Kasdan’s now little remembered drama The Accidental Tourist, lobbied Scott hard for the role. Davis ended up as Thelma, joined by Sarandon – someone older, critically feted (more recently for her role in Bull Durham) and utterly cynical about the Hollywood machine she wanted no part of – as Louise. They turned out to be a magnetic duo, riven with the kind of chemistry you can only dream of in a leading duo.

Crucially, they truly invest you in their journey from the very beginning, as Thelma frees herself from her boorish husband Darryl (played by perennially underrated character actor Christopher McDonald, an ex-boyfriend of Davis who she recommended for the role) and Louise – in saving her from vicious would-be rapist Harlan (Timothy Carhart, dripping in sleaze) – triggers the criminal events both women finally decide to lean into and enjoy. The moral question of whether Carhart’s character deserved to be murdered comes through via Harvey Keitel’s detective, Hal, who serves as the one decent male figure visible in the film (this also sees Keitel reunite with Scott after a main role in his debut, The Duellists).

Two of the more intriguing men in the supporting cast were also portrayed by actors on the cusp of fame, and in one cast super-stardom. Michael Madsen, just a year away from his breakout role in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, as Louise’s unlikely slacker musician boyfriend Jimmy, was originally offered Harlan but refused, instead serving as an example of the kind of unsuitable men Louise would align herself with following the trauma that drove her character – being raped in Texas years before – and which factors strongly into how she throws her future away to protect Thelma from following suit.

Even more striking is a young Brad Pitt, a sexy male hustler named JD, who seduces Thelma and then robs her. Though it would be David Fincher’s Se7en in 1994 that properly put him on the map, Thelma & Louise is arguably the role that displayed Pitt’s emerging acting talents and chiselled male form that would strike thirst in several generations of male and female fans alike. Khouri imagined JD as much more sinister on the page but, as per Scott’s brief to lighten the film, Pitt – who nabbed the role after a tough audition process and numerous other actors had been cast and dropped out – plays him with a trashy sense of whimsical charm, almost laying down here a core template of Pitt’s cinematic persona.

For a film that could have the trappings of a pulpy cat and mouse thriller, with Thelma holding up liquor stores and both women blowing up the trucks of skeevy drivers and so on, Thelma & Louise always feels like a free-flowing black comedy. The scenes with JD often underline what Scott appears to have seen in Khouri’s script and story, the idea that to depict both of these women unintentionally falling off the conventional grid of feminine existence, under the control of entitled men, you had to take it to a certain light register. We have to see them enjoying it. That could have been different, and would have been in many other male filmmaker’s hands. Maybe even certain of the few female directors of the time.

The humour, and that freewheeling exploration of Americana, set to Hans Zimmer’s more Tony Scott-esque score, is what makes Thelma & Louise work both comedically and dramatically. Even when exploring the darkest psychology of the abuse women face, as men take liberties, slap them around, or call them ‘bitches’ when they don’t consent, it never feels like punishment. It’s cathartic. It’s powerful. And the ending – iconic enough to be lampooned plenty of times over the years – is a bravura moment of complete liberation. Neither of these women should have been pushed to such extremes – a fact only Hal seems to recognise at the end – but they epitomise going out in a blaze of glory. ‘Doing a Thelma & Louise’ became a term in the cultural consciousness.

Made on a tight budget, the film was a huge success. Critics loved it. Awards were thrown at it – Khouri winning an Oscar for her script, Scott being nominated. It did well at the box office. And it cemented Scott as more than a two hit wonder. It was his best film since Blade Runner, without question. It would be his best film until Gladiator. For a film he didn’t imagine he would make, and wouldn’t have sought out, it proved that Scott had the kind of range and dexterity few other directors possessed, a fact that would become ever clearer over the next three decades.

It’s also perhaps one of the Ridley Scott films that will age the best. Thelma & Louise arguably continues to have a legacy decades on. It’s hard to imagine a film such as Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman without it. In a piece for the Independent, professor of film at the University of Southampton, Dr Shelley Cobb, said: “Thelma & Louise is a turning point, I think in terms of the representation of women. There’s a particular shift in the early 1990s that Thelma & Louise hits. We were moving out of the feminist backlash of the 80s, and into third-wave feminism, post-feminism. We’re moving into that period where you have the return of a new kind of strong female character.”

Would Thelma & Louise have happened without Ridley Scott? Perhaps. Would we still be talking about it now? Perhaps not. Either way, it speaks to how a man forged by a strong matriarchal figure had enough clarity to push back at Hollywood’s male driven system before female agency was a given. That influence should never be underestimated.

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his Patreon and books, via Linktr.ee here.

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