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''Two women go on a crime spree'' was, as first time screenwriter Callie Khouri has explained, the original inspiration behind the script that became a film and then something of a legend around the world, Thelma and Louise.
Khouri walked off with an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for her efforts, but more importantly, the film became a ''must see'' and ''must discuss'' event that thrilled, angered, empowered, and frightened various audiences. The long list of articles listed above is testimony itself to the interest this female outlaw buddy road film evoked at the time it came out (they even made it to the cover of Time) and since.
Why such attention? First, the story is a fascinating reworking of two male dominated genres: the American road film including
everything from Easy Rider and Badlands to Smokey and the Bandit and Two Lane Blacktop, together with the outlaw buddy Western as especially embodied in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The twist is that this time the buddies are women and instead of horses, we're dealing with the open highway through the Western landscape (breathtakingly shot by cinematographer Adrian Biddle).
Furthermore, Khouri's script pushes these genres beyond what we had come to expect of these formula films. What appears to be a simple light-hearted Southwestern working class female adventure suddenly turns dark, dangerous, and absolutely engrossing the moment Louise kills Thelma's would-be rapist in the country bar parking lot. What follows is their flight from the law and their men until they finally take hold of their own lives and make one strong assertive statement: their death as they drive off the rim of the Grand Canyon rather than face surrender and capture by the ''men with guns'' packed around them, much like the hundreds of Bolivian troops surrounding Butch and Sundance at the end of their tale.
The ending, however, points a telling difference with and from Butch Cassidy and other road movies. While it's never quite clear how aware Butch and Sundance are that they are about to die (and they certainly do not express this thought in their dialogue), Thelma and Louise absolutely agree on ''Let's not get caught,'' sealed with soulful and joyful glances at each other. Ironically they embrace each other as friends and life itself, free and pure, before plunging to their chosen death.
The film is also memorable for the strong performances by Susan Sarandon as Louise and Geena Davis as Thelma. Rather than busty Hollywood pre-twenty sex kittens, Sarandon and Davis give full bodied character to these thirty and forty-something women who come to enjoy the role-reversing situations they find themselves in. Audiences screamed with delight along with this dynamic duo when, for instance, Thelma blows up the oil tanker truck in the desert.
That said, the men in the film also play their less than flattering roles with brio. Newcomer Brad Pitt is sexy and devilishly dangerous as the hitchhiker who gives Thelma her first orgasm and steals all their money. Harvey Keitel plays the exasperated and sympathetic cop well, while Michael Madsen is ''the guy you love to hate'' as Thelma's redneck husband, Darryl.
Ridley Scott would seem the most unlikely director for the project, since his Blade Runner and Aliens are futuristic and expressionistic high tech nightmares. But Scott, who told Khouri when he met her for the first time, ''We will never change the ending!'' succeeded in reaching into the story and highlighting the mythic dimensions of it. As director he is responsible for the overall exhilaration the film provides of the wide open spaces, the open road, movement and wonder as well as for directing ''non dialogue'' moments between Thelma and Louise which have an almost improvisational feel to them.
As cultural phenomenon, Thelma and Louise touched a number of important cords. As a straightforward film about relationships, it thumbed its nose at ever-escalating budget heavy special effects films in which character seemed unimportant. As a film about women written by a woman and co-produced by a woman (Mimi Polk), this work became a text that many women felt empowered them while threatening many men who felt the film was somehow too ''feminist.'' Khouri denies she is a card-carrying feminist and prefers simply to talk about the characterization of strong women—certainly Thelma and Louise as characters are not portrayed as women conscious of the women's movement. As a narrative that ends in death instead of the ''happy ending'' usually championed by Hollywood, the film forces us all to rethink certain American myths and the ideology underpinning them.
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