Skip to main content

You know, the one thing I can't figure out is whether these girls are real smart or just real, real lucky?

Thelma & Louise
(1991)

(SPOILERS) The stuff of a thousand spoofs, I’ve always had the lurking feeling Thelma & Louise lent itself to such treatment so immediately because Ridley Scott fashioned a film so expressly intent on mythmaking. And also that, in the absence of readily available alternatives in populist, female empowerment cinema, the picture was seized on as instant classic, when Callie Khouri’s screenplay is a little too schematic for that, and Scott too transparent in his influences. As such, the positives in Thelma & Louise’s enduring legacy rest most heavily on the Best Actress Oscar-nominated performances of its leads.


In terms of its director’s oeuvre, Thelma & Louise is almost entirely atypical.  It might be the most “written” picture he has made, one where the demands of the screenplay don’t grant him the leeway to fashion a prevailing world around its protagonists (which is not to say he doesn’t take full advantage of the road trip scenery – the landscape “is the third big character in the movie” – or invest the soundtrack, unhappily, with a cavalcade of country and western songs; when Hans Zimmer isn’t herding us towards anthemic uplift, that is). It’s refreshing that he’s required to fixate so fully on the characters, but it makes for a different feel to even his previous couple of crime genre pictures, where there were more gaps for him to fill with mood (or posturing).


Of course, as a director, Scott has made a career from half-arsed scripts (despite everyone telling us it’s all about story with him; yeah, just not very good story) with not especially notable characters. Thelma & Louise at very least has strong, memorable signature characters, from the central duo to the parade of male peripheries, ranging from broad-as-can-be to subtly nuanced. The plotting itself is more contrived, since the premise is to mould a mythic crime feature; you can feel the grinding of gears at times, or at very least the over-wilfulness with which Scott and Khouri strive to make this the case (“Something’s crossed over in me. I can’t go back”).


That’s not necessarily a demerit – more than enough male-centric features have done similar – but you’re made very aware of the genre straddling that’s going on, from straight drama to broad comedy to generic crime movie. It’s as if, once Louise has crossed the line and killed the Harlan (Timothy Carhart), the picture is forced to retreat from its approximation of realism but isn’t quite sure how to support this tentative manoeuvre or how full-blown its plunge into fantasy should be (if Khouri was concerned that people “don’t understand metaphor anymore” the root maybe that the picture plays fast and loose with its footing).


You have Scott’s gloss to merge the disparate elements together, but I wonder if Khouri herself mightn’t have done a more cohesive job. Which isn’t to say Thelma & Louise doesn’t remain one of Scott’s superior pictures. Only that, in terms of servicing the story, it had the potential to be a less distractingly polished piece (I could also see the sadly recently deceased Jonathan Demme coming up trumps with the material). On the other hand, there’s sometimes a sense Khouri worked backwards to get her characters to the point of iconic status, and the joins sometimes show; Thelma and Louise’s “odyssey” as Scott puts it, doesn’t feel organic, and much as he makes it visually of-a-piece, tonally he’s at least partially responsible for its jumpiness.


Darryl: Jesus Christ!
Max: Good God.
Hal: My lord.

Certainly, he was the one demanding the injection of more comedy into the proceedings: “I said, ‘There’s really a lot of funny shit in the movie – you should not let that go.’ I’m not sure Callie got his initially; she was going a little more seriously”. Which is ironic, as the last thing you think of Scott is his being good at comedy (he cast Russell Crowe as Hugh Grant in A Good Year, for goodness sake).


And yet, he comes up with the very funny goods repeatedly here, from the succession of male caricatures: Christopher McDonald’s moronic husband Darryl  - slipping over workmen, having a rant while Hal observes, amused, that “Sir, you’re standing in your pizza”, and worried he’ll have to pay for his phone to be wiretapped – to lecherous trucker Albert (Sonny Carl Davis), whose truck is destroyed in punishment for his lewdness, to Jason Beghe’s state trooper, reduced to a snivelling wreck when threatened at gunpoint (Beghe improved this, and McDonald improv’d too, as did Brad Pitt and Harvey Keitel – a lot of improv going on here), to Hal (Keitel) and his cohorts impelling Darryl to turn the TV back to Serenade, to Max (Stephen Tobolowsky) watching Thelma’s holdup video while eating a burger like he’s going to the movies. And then there’s the Rastafarian cyclist (Noel L Walcott III), a spur-of-the-moment idea on Scott’s part (he saw Walcott on the way to set) that gets perhaps the biggest laugh in the picture.


Louise: In the future, when a woman’s crying like that, she isn’t having fun.

The question might be whether all that comedy is germane, however. Scott’s argument was that “Comedies are more powerful cos they don’t shut off half the audience… You want the males to listen. You want them to eat crow. Because every male in that movie is damaged goods”. It’s debatable whether his canniness actually paid off (the movie was a modest sleeper hit, and instantly got feted/labelled feminist, so probably didn’t attract a great deal of men on the basis of its chucklesomeness). His thinking was in terms of audience and demographics, and marketing (anyone reading the IMDB's Trivia section should take the entry on this movie with a pinch of salt; it didn’t get written until 1988 but has Scott commissioning Khouri in 1980).


And, while Sir Ridders stuck to his guns in retaining the downbeat ending, he all but neuters it by cutting the mood too quickly (compare it to the masterfully sustained contemplation of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, on which this less potently riffs). Roger Ebert was quite right to call the edit out; the way the fade goes straight into a clips montage of happier times suggests the fear of leaving viewers on a downer, of digesting that Thelma and Louise really are dead. It’s a symptom of a director losing his nerve.


Sarandon considered that “going off the cliff was a romantic device” and she’s right. It marks the picture as an empowerment fantasy, one in which its characters can’t be fettered or held back by the various patriarchal structures and personifications they encounter, none of whom are worthy, except maybe Keitel’s cop (Pitt’s JD’s a thief, even Michael Madsen’s Jimmy, after saying he wouldn’t, tells the police what he knows). But Khouri commented of the movie, “If you’re looking for a feminist manifesto, you will be disappointed” and of criticism of irresponsibility said “… they’re not meant to be heroines. They’re anti-heroes”.


But when she says of the key scene “Bad guys get killed in every goddam movie that gets made… that guy was the bad guy and he got killed. It was only because a woman did it that there was any controversy” she’s being slightly disingenuous, and only partially correct, as it also goes back to the thorny territory of genre boundaries. Thelma & Louise isn’t simply an outlaw movie with women; it can’t quite fly away because it has its feet in the reality its protagonists start in. It’s only later that it detours into a less responsible string of wish fulfilments. Such as shagging the hunky man of your dreams (“You finally got laid properly. That’s so sweet” just after an attempted rape – “It’s her choice to do that, isn’t it?” was Khouri’s response, a curious response as the buck stops with the writer when it comes to motivation), to getting your own back on the “beaver” trucker, and committing armed robbery as if you were born to it.


Louise: There’s no such thing as justifiable robbery.

Indeed, while Louise’s character remains grounded throughout, it’s only really due to Davis that Thelma doesn’t seem faintly ridiculous, going fully Bonnie and Clyde with admissions of self-discovery (“It was like I’d been doing it all my life. I know it’s crazy, but I just feel I’ve got a knack for this”). Davis essays the journey from giddy scatterbrain to focussed and assured with complete conviction, while Sarandon invests a world-weariness that is utterly genuine, and carries the picture through its more fanciful interludes. The male characters, meanwhile, are all confirmations of the biases of the female ones (with the audience surrogate, Hal, carefully imposed to take the edge of their plunge).


JD: Well now, I’ve always believed that done properly, armed robbery doesn’t have to be a totally unpleasant experience.

This was also the movie that made Brad of course; Scott references the hairdryer scene as “the beginning of Brad Pitt! Bingo!” but what’s most noticeable in retrospect is how dedicated and pre-starry the performance is, whilst also being a star turn. He and Davis have as easy chemistry as Sarandon and Madsen.


If it’s Sarandon and Davis who elevate Thelma & Louise, there’s never a chance of them stopping Ridley Scott imprinting himself on it. Just look at those lines of police cars, the conspicuous rain in sunshine (cos it looks cool) and the many stunning driving shots through the vast open expanses. And the great pursuit at the end, much imitated (with Hal running in slow motion). And, with Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack, it set a marker for the director and his brother going forward (Tony’s next movie would be the also Badlands-influenced True Romance, which judges its tone much better than Thelma & Louise, probably because it’s very clear on its genre).


Black Rain saw his first tentative steps, but Thelma & Louise is the first outright “slick” Ridley Scott movie, and would fit happily in with any of his post-Gladiator product. Except that it’s better written than any of them, The Counselor maybe excepted; perhaps tonally and structurally, Khouri’s screenplay has its faults, but in dialogue terms Thelma & Louise is one of the sharpest things Scott has made (probably only Blade Runner bests it). It’s ironic then, that I’m not sold on whether Ridley should have stepped up to direct, or encouraged Khouri to make changes; his input meant it had over-invested its milieu before it was even released, in a slightly too affected way, sugaring its serio-pulp pill.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.