Callie Khouri’s Thelma & Louise
by Julien Allen
“All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun” —Jean-Luc Godard
Though it might not have felt like it on its release a quarter of a century ago, Thelma & Louise is one of those “little” films that give Hollywood a good name. The film was heralded, before a single day’s shooting, by a baleful trumpet blast of industry controversy, owing to the appointment of Ridley Scott as the director of a by-then notorious feminist script, but the finished product was a word-of-mouth smash ($45 million box office gross in the U.S.); garnered an original screenplay Academy Award for its progenitor, the unknown Texan-born actress and music video producer Callie Khouri; and triggered a chorus of sociological debate in the U.S. press—making the cover of Time and filling column space throughout the summer of 1991. The core creative spark of Thelma & Louise, not to mention the primary source of the supra-cinematic impact of the film, is Khouri’s screenplay: a story of freedom on the open road in which two women adopt the familiar male roles of outlaws on the run. Often referred to as “genre-bending” (western? buddy movie? road movie? melodrama? comedy?), it’s closer to old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling, with a modern twist—the women are fleeing a world of men—that permeates and informs almost every narrative component. (Good stories shouldn’t require genre compartmentalization anyway: what genre is Only Angels Have Wings?)
It’s the iconography of Thelma & Louise and its enduring appeal for succeeding generations of feminists in particular that mark it as a notable staging post in the development of female action heroines, a category which now includes the likes of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Gina Carano in Haywire, Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, and the extraordinary mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey, whose big screen appearances thus far are limited to films with numbers in the title (Expendables 3 and Furious 7), but who in real life claims she would defeat boxer Floyd Mayweather in a no-rules street fight: should it eventuate, it would be severely unwise to bet against her winning. But looking back—beyond mere genre placeholding—at the text itself, one can see how Khouri’s Thelma & Louise broke its own mold more ingeniously, by incorporating resonant feminist themes of reclamation and liberation into a widely recognizable and accessible Hollywood narrative.
Ridley Scott—to whom feminist film folklore owes the existence of Ellen Ripley, a character first written as male but whom Scott transformed into the “final girl” of his 1979 outer space slasher, Alien—deserves significant credit for tirelessly hawking the script around Hollywood to little avail. Scott’s somewhat mercenary theory—he was looking to develop at the time as a producer—was the same as Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s common mantra now: that by its historical aversion to building big commercial movies around women, Hollywood was missing a huge financial trick. Scott never intended to direct Thelma & Louise, but knew that for a concept so commercially counterintuitive to have a prospect of a studio green light in 1990, it required what Hollywood would consider a “solid investment” at the helm. The result? He was turned down by everyone he asked. So, a director who specializes in surfaces, seduction, and above all set decoration (The Duellists, Blade Runner, Black Rain) was left in charge of a human drama not only outside of his own comfort zone, but apparently outside of everyone else’s as well. Khouri was brought in as coproducer and remained on set throughout the shoot: the “third woman” of Thelma & Louise, fighting (successfully) for the undiluted retention of her ideas, including the film’s infamous ending.
Beginning almost like a light-hearted sitcom, the film introduces us to Arkansawyers Louise (Susan Sarandon), who works as a waitress, spikily dispensing advice to her young clientele on the perils of smoking before sparking one up in the kitchen, and her goofy friend Thelma (Geena Davis), a young housewife trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage to a prize Milken-era red-suspendered asshole (Christopher McDonald). Thelma and Louise are off for an escapist weekend in a borrowed, willow green 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible: Scott—ever the advertiser—really sells us the car with a slow precursory pan; Davis packs almost everything she owns into the trunk; Sarandon rolls her eyes; maybe some of the men in the audience do, too? But within fifteen minutes of the film’s beginning, this seemingly affable jaunt in the country has turned—as such things so often do in the movies—into a waking nightmare. Intoxicated by her sudden burst of freedom (and a glovebox full of miniatures), Davis lets her guard down at a roadhouse and hits the dance floor with a local lothario (Timothy Carhart). When she comes to her senses in the parking lot and rejects his advances, he turns vicious, beats Davis and tries to rape her. Sarandon pulls a Colt .38 on him— “We were just having some fun” he protests; “You got a pretty fucked up idea of fun”, she replies, “Just for the future, if a woman’s crying like that, she ain’t having any fun.” As they turn to leave, the rapist taunts Sarandon once more and without further explanation, she kills him.
Turning themselves in (the instinctive option) is out of the question. As Sarandon correctly points out, she’s bang to rights: guilty of “murder one,” no one will listen to their reasons and there’s no self-defense plea as they “had gotten away.” They decide to make a run for Mexico, but they need money, so rather than cut themselves off completely, Sarandon decides to appeal to her boyfriend (Michael Madsen) to wire her life savings to Oklahoma City. They’re fugitives from justice now, and homicide cop Harvey Keitel is in pursuit, accompanied (due to the cross-border nature of their escapade) by the FBI, drolly incarnated by Stephen Tobolowsky, picking up from Die Hard’s Robert Davi the baton of cinema’s joyous disrespect for this august federal institution. At each fork in the road, their situation worsens, yet the women grow stronger and more emotionally liberated as they realize they have progressively less and less to lose. Their journey is into cinema: they are gradually transformed, over the course of this perilous odyssey, from real characters we might meet in every day life, into mythical characters the likes of whom we only ever see on the screen.
Khouri’s principal technical ingenuity lies in her control of tone. As with the aforementioned narrative lurch at the roadhouse, she frequently juxtaposes levity with misfortune. There are times when the story can take on the feel of the parlor game “Fortunately/Unfortunately”: Fortunately, Brad Pitt’s young cowboy drifter gave Thelma her first orgasm; Unfortunately, he also robbed her blind; Fortunately, he taught Thelma how to hold up a drugstore during his pre-coital chit-chat; Unfortunately, she was caught on CCTV putting this into effect and the feds have a copy; Fortunately (for the audience), this footage is extremely amusing . . . etc. It works, because the proceedings—humor and drama—are consistently grounded in the everyday realities that women face when having to deal with men. The script has such a tight hold on this conceit that—even as a sequence cuts back and forth between the diversion of Davis getting her kicks with Pitt and the solemnity of Sarandon toughing it out with Madsen—the screenwriter’s voice never sounds discordant.
As for these men in their lives, Thelma’s husband is a sports-obsessed douche-nozzle who provides most of the laughs (Scott was delighted when Christopher McDonald turned up to the shoot having grown a moustache unprompted); Madsen plays the emotionally fragile lunk, whose response to not being able to communicate with Louise is to propose marriage to her; Pitt is the young Athena-print sociopath whose beauty and obvious hindrance of the protagonists’ progress make him Thelma & Louise’s variant of Laura Mulvey’s “passive female”; and Tobolowsky’s FBI agent is the patriarchal cynic (he tells Thelma’s husband: “If Thelma calls again, be gentle. You know, like you’re really happy to hear from her. Like you really care for her. Women love that shit.”). Keitel is deliberately set apart, because his character’s primary impulse, despite a significant case to prosecute, is concern for the women’s predicament. His eventual “male gaze” is a thousand yard stare into the bottom of a canyon, as it dawns on him that his enterprise was doomed.
The accusation of man-bashing (Khouri responded that it was actually “idiot-bashing”) was just one of a number leveled at Thelma & Louise in the ensuing brouhaha following its release, the puzzling implication being that a story written from the point of view of women who are angry at the victimization of their gender and the dubious historical acceptance of men’s moral superiority, should not be allowed to point out any of mankind’s faults along the way. Most of the men in Thelma & Louise are not especially evil, they are certainly weak: clearly victims of society’s expectations of them, but nor by the same token do they ever appear properly equipped to monopolize the power they have inherited. More observant commentators reproached the film for celebrating and perpetuating—by having it lovingly appropriated by women—a posturing masculine image repertoire (Wild Turkey, cool cars, general badassery) that men, even to this day, are struggling to discard: an approach which (in the words of one column in the Guardian) “has no place in the liberation of any of us.” Before dismissing commentary like this as being in dire need of a sense of humor, it is worth noting the astuteness of the remark, because it goes to the heart of what Khouri was hoping to achieve. She wasn’t trying to denigrate buddy movies or westerns (her preproduction conversations with Scott often ended up with the film-mad pair just “talking movies”) but simply wanted to make them more accessible and universal. Her own enthusiasm for Hollywood cinema was always undermined by the lazy insistence that the outlaws had to be men, and the women their molls or victims. She remarked in an interview: “How can the women drive the action, if they’re not driving the car?” Granted, the film’s jumping-off point is women being forced by their circumstances to be wholly reactive to men: Davis’s escape from domestic drudgery; the parking lot assault; Madsen giving them up to the cops, and Pitt’s stealing their cash. But by the last reel of Thelma & Louise, the tables have turned: the entirety of the film’s male action exists in the background, purely as a consequence of what the two women are doing. This is most strikingly underlined by a climactic Keystone Cops-esque sequence in the police station, wherein a growing phalanx of officers try to restrain a fuming McDonald from smashing Pitt’s face in, but land in a campy, impotent mess on the staircase.
They say Scott is a “visual” director, which is only really half an insult. One could even just about mount an argument on the alternative auteurship of Thelma & Louise for its British cameraman, Adrian Biddle. His vivid location photography (accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s bluegrass-infused score with occasional Vangelis synth-stylings) elevates the film to the level of spectacle Khouri always had in mind. One particular left to right dolly shot, when the women pick up Pitt in the Thunderbird and head off the parking lot, turning left onto the highway, is sensual and magnificent, and it chimes with those numerous passages of the film which place the audience in the back seat behind the fugitives, or in a convoy, cheering them on. The final sequences shot in Moab, Utah, a favorite location of John Ford (Fort Apache, Cheyenne Autumn) but unused in a major Hollywood film since George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told in 1965, have a caramelized, elegiac quality which crystallize the film’s commitment to a myth-making ending. If Scott’s stylistic art direction is largely as one might expect (overly backlit interiors; various plumes of smoke/dust/vapor emanating from somewhere or other; use of rain hoses when it’s clearly cloudless and 100 degrees blazing sunshine), it is as producer that he really succeeds here: incorporating and parsing Khouri’s input (which was, in Scott’s own words, "vociferous") and assembling apposite technicians and actors, all in the cause of making her labor of love a reality.
Even today, the film is attacked for equating feminism with murder and gunplay: the women also hold up a policeman and shoot up a petrol tanker whose driver keeps making unsophisticated sexual advances. Here was a film whose overnight success and subsequent elevation to iconic status meant it found itself carrying baggage for feminist arguments in general, without being afforded the artistic freedom to work with the raw materials it was given. A gun is, historically speaking, one of the fundamental components of narrative cinema: can you imagine how sorely a Sight & Sound Top 100 list would be impoverished minus any films featuring firearms? A more pertinent entreaty might be that we should stop making films with guns, but that has nothing to do with feminism. Such criticism is fueled by backlash-driven double standards, but it is a testimony to the script itself that the wounds from the blows it landed bled into the op-ed pages so quickly, making otherwise sensible commentators apparently forget they were talking about a Hollywood film at all. We’re clearly worlds away from far more radical and troubling rape-revenge narratives such as Ms. 45 and I Spit on Your Grave. If a mainstream audience can stomach James Bond executing scores of henchmen and bedding—and discarding—women “for England,” it can probably just about manage material like this (a total of three people die in the film, and two of them are Thelma and Louise) and still understand the point of it all. If anything, by dramatizing the transformation of ordinary women into Butch & Sundance-style heroines, Thelma & Louise does more to challenge, unpack and test these archetypes than the weaponized Ripley in Rambo-screenwriter James Cameron’s 1986 follow-up, Aliens. Khouri’s conclusion, to the despair of many on both sides of the argument, is two-toned: Thelma and Louise choose death as the ultimate liberation because the world they have left behind is not worth going back to, but not before a symbolic clasping of hands to eliminate any suggestion of defeatism. Cahiers du cinéma scoffed: “For Ridley Scott, it seems female emancipation exists only in the afterlife.” thereby in one sentence, both rejecting Khouri’s dramatic judgment and, by name-checking Scott and not Khouri, robbing her of the authorship of an ending she fought successfully to keep.
Beyond this unmerited legacy of female screen violence (extrapolating worryingly towards the likes of Baise-moi (2000) and Rhianna’s depressing Megaforce-directed 2015 music video for “Bitch Better Have My Money”) what really emerges from Thelma & Louise after twenty four years is a more valuable and potent manifesto, for what might be called “bread and roses” feminism. Khouri doesn’t waste too long on a plea for bread (for women to receive equal treatment and respect) because in today’s world that should be a given. Her protagonists want roses too: to laugh and drink and fuck and misbehave—to share in life’s glories . . . and just for once, if it’s not too much to ask, to drive the car.
***Post-script: In recognizing Hollywood’s writer-auteurs, it could be noted that Khouri shares a badge of honor with the following ‘original screenplay’ writers, all of whom picked up their film’s only Oscar: Herman J Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane); Dalton Trumbo (The Brave One); Robert Towne (Chinatown); Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction); Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), and Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris).