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Thelma and Louise Anniversary
Image: MGM

Film

Thelma and Louise at 30: A Road Movie that Doesn’t Go Off a Cliff

Ridley Scott wouldn’t seem the natural director for a film about a pair of working-class women from the American South who go on the run from the law after one of them shoots a rapist. But the film, which marks its 30th anniversary this week, has emerged over the years as one of Scott’s most indelible films. 

The film, released in May of 1991, came from a script by Callie Khouri. It starred Geena Davis as Thelma and Susan Sarandon as Louise, a pair of Arkansas women in not-so-great relationships with not-so-great men (Christopher McDonald and Michael Madsen, respectively.) 

Headed out on the road for a weekend of fishing, Thelma and Louise’s plans are derailed when, out at a bar, a man attempts to rape Thelma, and Louise shoots him. Knowing that the police are unlikely to be sympathetic, the two decide to hightail it to Mexico in their distinctive 1966 T-bird. 

Thelma and Louise Anniversary
Image: MGM

This triggers a manhunt, led by cop Harvey Keitel, and various memorable events along the way, including Thelma’s affair with a drifter (a very young Brad Pitt), a confrontation with a creepy truck driver, and a violent run-in with a state trooper. 

It all ends with the famous kiss, hand-hold, and plunge of their car into into the Grand Canyon. 

The film, while it mostly earned positive reviews, was hugely controversial at the time. It was praised as feminist, denounced as insufficiently feminist, and ripped as anti-male, at a time when Rush Limbaugh was railing against “feminazis.” It’s undisputed, though, that Thelma and Louise brought ideas to the forefront of popular culture that was not exactly in fashion at the time. 

Thelma and Louise was nominated for five Oscars, and won one, for Best Original Screenplay. It was a box office success, and time has been kind to its legacy; it was added to the National Film Registry in 2016. 

Thelma and Louise Anniversary
Image: MGM

As for Ridley Scott, Thelma and Louise came relatively early in his career, as the 7th film he directed out of 27 total if you include the two he has coming later in 2021. Ironically, the films that came immediately before and after Thelma and Louise – 1989’s Japan-based thriller Black Rain and 1992’s Christopher Columbus biopic 1492: The Conquest of Paradise – haven’t held up nearly as well. 

Still, Thelma and Louise belongs near the top of the list of Scott’s most memorable films, along with Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator. 

As for the actors, Sarandon has remained a steady presence in movies for the ensuing three decades. Davis has been much less present, but will occasionally pop up in a memorable role, like 2017’s Marjorie Prime and the most recent season of Netflix’s GLOW. And the film, of course, launched Pitt’s superstar career, along with True Romance two years later. 

Essentially the only thing that’s especially dated about Thelma and Louise is its synthy score, but that’s just how things were in the years between 1988 and 1993. it’s a fine film, one that’s worthy of its reputation. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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