Superficially politically correct, 'Thelma & Louise' has terrifying theme

May 24, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Thelma & Louise," from Ridley Scott and starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, is being hailed as a breakthrough film, the first female buddy picture that really works. But it's nothing new at all. In fact, it's still the same old story, a fight with guns for glory, until time goes by

So sad. It begins as a well-observed tale of bonding in which two Arkansas women, who've been shunted aside by life (that is, by the men in their lives) and set out for a mildly irresponsible weekend of fun.

What they find is the lure of the gun, the sense of power and freedom it confers, the sense of contempt for its victims. In the end, so seduced by it, they abandon everything, loving the bold new life they've discovered more than the grim old life they've escaped.

If this movie didn't have the camouflage of political correctness -- it's about women and therefore sports the fashionable feminist subtext -- it either wouldn't have been made or would be denounced savagely.

Louise (Sarandon), a waitress, and Thelma (Davis), a housewife, are best friends, taken for granted by their men. Out for a weekend, they decide to take a revolver along. They stop for a drink, Thelma has a few too many and she gets into a fix with a clearly dangerous guy. He rapes her in the parking lot; Louise breaks it up with the gun, but in a fit of rage pulls the trigger, shooting the guy stone dead.

The movie doesn't pay a lot of attention to details. The shooting was ambiguous enough to qualify as self-defense. But the two women panic and take off on an odyssey across the southwest, pursued by a kind-hearted Arkansas state policeman (Harvey Keitel.)

The two become involved with a variety of losers as they flee, including a hot, young cowboy stud who gives Thelma her first orgasm (liberating), teaches her the ins and outs of robbery (enlightening) and steals all their money (terrifying). This last stroke compels them toward a life of crime.

What's so terrifying about the movie is the degree to which violence is seen as liberation. As they progress into empowerment by handgun, they lose their dumpiness. Finally, when they pull their pieces to humiliate a tank-truck driver who's been dogging them, they're Vogue models: Lean and tan, slick and cool. They love the power the guns give them to drive this scumsucker to earth and light off his 10,000 gallons of fuel in the desert.

Arthur Penn's "Bonnie & Clyde" advanced this same line back in 1967, demonstrating how two outcasts in the clinch of the Depression found their identities in the violence that they wreaked. But in that year, about 75 people were murdered in -- to pick a city -- Washington, D.C.; the times were somehow more innocent. This year, in that same city, 500 are likely to perish. The message that seemed so revolutionary then now seems utterly irresponsible.

And besides, "Bonnie and Clyde" played fair: It demonstrated, without romanticism, the inevitable ending of such adventures, as its protagonists were blown apart.

By contrast, "Thelma & Louise" is at its most dishonest in chronicling its antagonists end. (Read no further if you don't want to know.) Faced with the prospect of a return to society -- as represented by a phalanx of troopers -- they turn instead to the edge, and hurl their pink T-Bird over it. The camera freezes on that last image of them, locked in the air.

But think if the camera had rolled for another few seconds what the last image would be: two beautiful woman, smashed to pulp on the rocks, reduced to meat and blood, a lunch for flies. For what? For nothing. That's liberation?

@'Thelma & Louise'

Starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.

Directed by Ridley Scott.

Released by MGM.

Rated R.

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