Every semester in a writing class, I require my students to study Callie Khouri’s Oscar-winning screenplay and watch Thelma and Louise. Then I tell them about watching the movie with my straight-laced, Christian romance-reading, happy ending-loving mother and saying “They’ve killed someone, held up a convenience store, destroyed property, and run from the police. And we want so badly for them to get away with it.” My mother, who goes 55 mph even when she’s in a hurry, because it’s the law, replied in wonder “You’re right, we do!”
Then I ask the students: why? In short, for the same reasons we listen to Sheryl Crow, Ani DiFranco, Bonnie Raitt, and the Dixie Chicks. I share with the class my mixed feelings about the song “Goodbye, Earl.” It is a song about killing a man and getting away with it. From that perspective, it promotes revenge and personal vengeance above moral law. However, many women who are victims of abusive relationships can relate to it and in listening to the song, they may be able to bring up their feelings of anger, feel them without acting on them, and purge them. That’s the definition of catharsis, which Aristotle thought was the highest form of dramatic art.
Thelma and Louise is a positive experience for anyone who needs a boost of empowerment, because the themes of friendship and freedom are universal. But as reviewer Diane White said, “[f]or some women Thelma and Louise is a cathartic movie, a bit of wish-fulfillment. I know what it’s like to be so brutalized and humiliated by a man that you’d like to murder him. But I didn’t. Why? Because life isn’t a movie. Besides, unlike Louise, I didn’t have a gun handy.” White’s tongue in cheek humor is also characteristic of the way we can move on from the catharsis, and is embodied in the film itself (incidentally, the movie was and is still–see the DVD jacket–marketed as an “hilarious, high-speed thrill-ride.” Well, yes, but so is It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Not the same kind of story).
The story structure is sublime. All road trip movies are linear narratives by definition. There is a trajectory, a destination, and a clear goal. The plot is character driven, and here’s where Khouri’s genius really shines. Both women are articulate individual characters who are also relatable. One notices through the entire film that the plot is a matter of cause and effect. The title characters are forced to react to the circumstances they are handed. And as soon as they take initiative, they are forced to handle another set of circumstances. Then, another. The exposition is an example
of this. Within the first ten minutes we learn that Louise is a waitress with a motherly demeanor and mildly bad habits. Thelma is a housewife belittled and beleaguered by an idiot husband (we at no time have any sympathy for Darryl. Oddly enough, Thelma does). Thelma tries to politely ask Darryl if she can go with Louise for the weekend. Darryl’s attitude stops her from asking, because she knows he’ll say no. So she leaves him a note and a skunky beer, and goes with Louise anyway. From there, the plot points follow the same idea. The women try to do something. A man tries to stop, sidetrack, or separate them. They are forced to react.
Do the women in the film make poor choices? If they do, they are given poor options. And that’s where the plot of the film becomes cathartic fiction. Their sympathy is earned not by a sliding scale of moral high ground, but because the truth about violence to women had not, and still has not been adequately addressed in our social consciousness. Thelma and Louise is the story of two women who were forced to take matters into their own hands. For better or worse, and for a large variety of reasons, there are a lot of people who relate to that.
The sophistication of the formal elements of the film are the support for its cinematic metaphor. This is not real life. This is a story, told from a realistic perspective, that is also obviously fiction. Nowhere is that more evident than in the final shots of the film. Forced with the choice to give in to, literally, The Man (the white patriarchal establishment), or drive off into the Grand Canyon, Thelma tells Louise “Let’s just keep going.” What’s out there (after death) is unknown, but in their imaginations could not be worse than return to who they had been: powerless, unexpressed, and defined by society without their permission. So they drive off. The car hurls into the middle of the frame, surrounded by sky. The image freezes, and dissolves to a Polaroid of the two of them at the beginning. It is very important we see the car take off, but never land. Where they are at the end is mid-flight, free, completely in defiance of gravity.
Like a lot of the films I’ve mentioned on this list, I learned a lot about narrative integrity and classic cinematic storytelling form. I learned about friendship (see earlier posts on female archetypes. There is a longer discussion to be had about Thelma and Louise as archetypal figures). And I learned that drama can have funny dialog and a great soundtrack. Like Steel Magnolias and host of other stories, Thelma and Louise is punctuated with emotional candor that is high and low. As a Christian, I think of this movie as a cautionary tale. I cannot escape the idea that the narrative would have changed with the application of Grace. In a sense, Hal tries. What if he had been able to get the charges against them cleared or dropped? Is Hal in that sense a reading of religion: too little too late, something that means well but is of no help? That ideology of organized religion has merit, but I disagree with that picture of God. That being said, God is a god of truth and justice, and in pointing out injustice the film is incredibly moral.
The movie has to end the way it does. The women commit murder, and in
the story world, that always catches up with you. The can never go back, because that happened. They can never be free or innocent. They can’t get to Mexico. And yet, they can’t turn around and be led away by the police. An audience would not be wholly satisfied with either. The former is too idealistic to be realistic, the latter makes all of their freedom for naught. The ending as it is makes the catharsis. A relatable story that can only happen at the movies, but gives the audience hope, joy, and a moment of levity where we too fly free with the people we trust.