Initially this film by accomplished stylist Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) looks like a distaff Odd Couple. Why would the fortyish, compulsively tidy Louise, whose emotions are coiled as tightly as her chignon, be friends with that thirtyish, scatterbrain Thelma, whose screws are as loose as her lips, if not for comic contrast?
But while Thelma and Louise promises to be merely an Odd Couple-turned-Easy Rider road movie, rookie scriptwriter Callie Khouri delivers several startling detours that transform her frivolous twosome into serious characters. Like an instant photograph, Thelma and Louise develop before our eyes. They make a pretty picture, but also a shocking one. Away from the men in their lives, the powerless Thelma and Louise empower themselves.
Just as Louise's sleek 1966 T-Bird gets buffeted by those roadhog tractor- trailers on the interstate, Thelma and Louise have until this weekend been slapped around by their men. Neither of them know it when they embark on their little trip, but both are closet adventuresses who have had it with men having their way with them. It's time for Thelma and Louise to have it their way. This is downright subversive in a film genre that has long been a men-only preserve.
The crossroads in this road movie is an ominously named honkytonk called the Silver Bullet where the girls stop for some Margaritas and mirth. When a roadhouse Romeo becomes too familiar with Thelma in the parking lot (she wails no, but he insists that she wants it), Louise intervenes - armed with a handgun. Unfortunately for this slime in cowboy boots, the would-be rapist
presses his luck. So Louise presses the trigger, releasing her long pent-up hatred toward men.
While I imagine many men will be made uncomfortable by Thelma and Louise's male characters - all but two are drooling lechers or chauvinist pigs - I imagine just as many women will enjoy a cathartic laugh at the male behavior that turns ditzy Thelma and law-abiding Louise into outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde. Or do I say Bonnie and Bonnie?
(This said, Harvey Keitel is excellent as the sympathetic police detective, ditto Michael Madsen as Louise's sometimes boyfriend Jimmy. All the other male characters are cartoons in this movie that shrewdly zigzags between farce and existential awakening.)
On their odyssey across Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona (motoring across some of the most heroic panoramas since John Ford), Thelma and Louise get liberated from the narrow lane of life to which they were previously consigned. Perhaps belatedly, Louise learns the depths of her boyfriend's passion while Thelma learns about passion for the first time. And the audience learns how these wildly dissimilar women could possibly have anything to talk about - that is, apart from eluding the feds.
As Thelma, Davis for the first time since The Fly gives a performance that is more than a collection of endearing stammers and unendurable tics. She plays Thelma as a chirpy void who evolves into a woman of action. Sarandon's Louise is the actress' most fully formed character since Atlantic City, a control freak who lets 'er rip for the first time.
Like its eponymous heroines, Thelma and Louise is unforgettable.
THELMA AND LOUISE * * * 1/2
Produced by Ridley Scott and Mimi Polk; directed by Ridley Scott; written by Callie Khouri; photography by Adrian Biddle; music by Hans Zimmer; distributed by MGM/UA.
Running time: 2 hours, 9 mins.
Louise - Susan Sarandon
Thelma - Geena Davis
Hal - Harvey Keitel
Jimmy - Michael Madsen
Darryl - Christopher McDonald
Parent's guide: R (sex, violence, sexual violence, profanity)
Showing at: area theaters