“Goddamit Thelma!” This is one of those films that is utterly iconic, everyone knows, and yet I had never seen. An icon of feminism and a real ‘game changer’, apparently. But what is it actually like? Well, not really a ‘massive’ movie at all.
Susan Sarandon’s Arkansas waitress Louise is packing for a weekend away and calls her friend Thelma (Geena Davis) to check she’s going to be ready, and that Thelma’s husband, controlling, domineering and simply unpleasant Darryl (Christopher McDonald) will let her go. We see Thelma try to ask Darryl but be intimidated out of doing so, even though it’s pretty obvious that Darryl plans on enjoying his weekend any way he sees fit. Nevertheless, Thelma leaves with Louise and they drive away in a borrowed Thunderbird convertible. On the way, despite that it will make them late, Thelma persuades Louise to stop off at a bar to have a couple of drinks and have some fun – neither girl has had much of a good time, Thelma downtrodden and meek, Louise feeling neglected by boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen). Thelma flirts innocently with a local and is almost raped by sleazy Harlan (Timothy Carhart), only saved by Louise’s intervention, but events begin to get out of control when Louise shoots the would-be rapist and decides she has to flee to Mexico. Thelma has been seen flirting and no-one will believe she was innocent.
Due to reasons she won’t divulge (though we can guess, and Thelma eventually does) Louise won’t drive directly through Texas and doesn’t have enough money, so arranges for Jimmy to send some money to Oklahoma, picking up drifter cowboy, J.D. (Brad Pitt, in an early role) along the way, aware that the FBI are in pursuit, accompanied by sympathetic cop Hal (Harvey Keitel), and time is running out.
There are lots of nice touches and, for Thelma particulaly, good character development. Early on, she seems almost like a hyperactive child, innocent and lost but becomes a more active agent in her own fate as the action progresses. Conversely, Louise begins as a controlled agent whose life begins to unravel, as past memories are forced to emerge and future choices narrow. There are interesting and sympathetic male characters – mainly Hal and Jimmy – though Darryl and Harlan act as effective villains, along with a really slimy trucker repeatedly encountered.
This is, when all is said and done, a road movie with two female leads. Any groundbreaking it has done is that the leads are women, written as women and portrayed as women, rather than being written and acted as men where the actors playing them happen to be women, if you understand me. It’s a good film, a very good film but just that, a fun film, well scripted and delivered. It is more important for simply existing than for any utterly compelling ‘message’ delivered.