‘I don’t ever remember feeling this awake’ – Thelma
It starts the way all films should – two gals, a convertible and a loaded gun, off on a road trip together. They’ve got high-waisted jeans and enormous swaying hair. They’re getting away from hard work, boredom and Thelma’s cretin of a husband. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, a lot. A lot goes wrong. Things really escalate quickly.
*Warning: massive amount of spoilers up ahead*
The first time I watched this film I was swept up in the momentum – the dazed 80s sunlit haze that they drive through; the borderline between them and the law; the cop cars tearing after them. But of course, it was directed by Ridley Scott, so there is just a whole heap of magnificent splendour on top of that. For example: it’s a trail-blazing epic of female solidarity, and an everlasting, unconditional sort of love between friends, above and beyond romance. All the subtleties and well-worn certainties in a lifelong friendship are given the big screen treatment, and it’s tender and surprising until the end. And then, we also have the hero to out-hero all other heroes, in Hal, played by Harvey Keitel. He’s the only one who really understands the dark path that Thelma and Louise have taken. He is supposed to be hunting them down and bringing them in, but really he’s tracking them across the desert, watching protectively, trying his damnedest to save their lives.
More than anything else, it’s a film about knowing who you really are.
When we first meet them, Thelma is ditzy and unpredictable, with an eye-wateringly bad dress sense (much fluff, many frills). Louise is a hard-working, chain smoking grown up. There’s a terrible, terrible sadness to their story, because really, it’s not that things go wrong for them once they’re on the road. Things were wrong before they even got started.
When Louise rescues Thelma by shooting dead her would-be rapist, she is setting the whole plot in motion, but there is a hidden crime that happened before we meet them. Sexual violence and insidious abuse ripple through their lives – the ‘thing that happened in Texas’ which Louise refuses to talk about; Thelma’s marriage to a bully who infantilizes her, treats her with contempt, and most irritatingly of all, shushes her when the telly is on. Thelma knows what happened to Louise even though they don’t talk about it, because it’s what’s made Louise the way she is – hard, cynical, undreaming. Louise has built high walls around the past, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that this tale of a road trip gone awry is actually the story of one rape and then almost another, and the extinguishing of the women they once were, and any sense of hope they had.
But don’t worry. Once they’ve committed a few serious crimes and they’re out on the road together, thing start to look up.
Thelma learns some important things about herself, which had remained elusive until now. Here is a list:
Things Thelma does not like:
- Being married to Daryl
Things Thelma likes:
- Sex with Brad Pitt
- Armed robbery
- Big hair
They find out who they really are in the desert – radiant, resourceful, thoroughly badass. I get the feeling it just took one mad moment for Louise to take the wheel and drive away from the whole sorry world. It’s Thelma who steals my heart. She’s still the same woman – impulsive, optimistic – but she gradually becomes really, suitably herself: clever, sinuous, beautiful, spirited. She calms right down as the stakes rise higher and higher. She gazes out at the sun, silent, thoughtful. At last she says to Louise, in a new tone of voice – ‘something’s changed for me. I can’t go back. I just couldn’t live’.
It’s a film about many things. But mostly it’s about how radical and difficult and immensely brave it really is to live absolutely true to yourself, and not be swayed by the pressure to conform or the mood of the times, or the horrible, irresistible urge to do something just because it’s what everyone else seems to be doing. I mean, damn, I still have no idea how to deal with that bullshit. So I mean radical as in scary, and earth-quaky, and progressive. But of course I also mean radical as in TOTALLY RADICAL, like, awesome. Like toooh tally righteous.
Ridley Scott and the scriptwriter Callie Khouri deserves our endless admiration for this story of heartbreak and suspense, line-dancing and hot-boxing, heroes and heroines, and female friendship given an intense significance, which I am waiting to see again one day. (It’s been 24 years, shiny Hollywood people. Where’s your A-game?) In the meantime, I’ve got these here high-waisted jeans and I’m not afraid of back-combing. Let’s all be our own Thelma and our own Louise. Don’t shoot anyone, or steal anything, just, you know, take yourself off on an adventure. Find your Bradley Pitt. Get a tan and see some things. Do not take the easy option. Don’t marry Daryl. Life is short and your hair looks great when it’s that big, no honestly. It’s rad.