The open roads of the big screen—when done right—seem even more vast and unknown than when they lie immediately before us, foot on the gas and destination in our sights. Somehow, however curiously, the screen stretches beyond our periphery, widening the horizon and heightening the experience. Like anything exemplified in the best of ’em, movies make real life bigger, more vivid, more exciting. Transformative.
In the summer of 1991, at the R-restricted age of 15, I sat down toward the front of a Central Florida AMC theater to watch a slow fade-in to an empty, exotic stretch of western back road in the opening moments of Thelma & Louise. A brooding slide guitar and synth-backed score teased all manner of adventure, the initial monochromatic vista replaced by fully saturated color, and I knew that teal green 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible of the trailers was not far behind. I cannot recall the exact reason for my acute anticipation of the Ridley Scott film—as of then I was unaware of the cultural analyses discussing it as a ballsy feminist manifesto, a buddy movie/road picture flipped on its head, a summer studio film that tweaked gender and genre tropes … and of course, the pursuant cries of its anti-male and revenge agendas about all of the above. I just knew this: I was super stoked to see two women drive.
Road trips as depicted on screen were nothing new: I loved the daffy silliness of the Griswolds in National Lampoon’s Vacation, and was mesmerized by the fearless counterculture of Easy Rider. Road trips weren’t novel in real life either: I’d been on the road for several days at a time with family—be it camper or car—to various vacation spots on the East Coast and, of course, a quick two-hour drive up the peninsula to that day trip of so many a Florida kid’s youth, Disney World. But The Road of Thelma & Louise was different—and not just because the people behind the wheel were female. For a teenaged girl born and raised in conservative small-town Florida, on the cusp of young adulthood—of all of that horseshit that seems at the time monumental and life-shattering and terrifying—the universe on screen before me was, in a word, wild.
A quarter of a century and umpteen viewings later, every line, every gesture, every music cue seared into my head, The Road of Thelma & Louise, with its uniquely Western textures and unsubtle though beautifully rendered symbolism, still represents everything that is “out there,” everything that’s possible, everything that’s hopeful, everything that’s menacing. It’s everywhere and nowhere … amplified. Broad strokes, to be sure, but Scott, then known for the moody sci-fi set pieces of Alien and Blade Runner, paints the stuff of everyday dreams and nightmares brilliantly. As ditzy, dissatisfied housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) and her slightly older, world-weary, single waitress BFF Louise (Susan Sarandon) escape their humdrum lives for the weekend—and then, when a pit stop at a honky-tonk goes horrifyingly awry, for good—their flight from Oklahoma to Mexico is urgent, telling and inimitably American. Leave it to Ridley Scott, taking visual inspiration from Terrence Malick’s Badlands, and the sweeping flyovers of fellow Brit cinematographer Adrian Biddle to capture the promise and danger of the scorched West—the film was shot largely in California and Utah, and it’s never looked more stunning, nor strangely unsentimental and unforgiving.
The Road of Thelma & Louise is one of constant portent. That giant, imposing T-Bird as their getaway vehicle notwithstanding, the duo are never not aware of the looming patriarchy. They’re treading on traditionally male territory—literally—outlaws amid oil rigs, crop dusters, cattle ranches, freight trains, and one dude after another with his head up his chauvinist ass. As things go downhill for “these girls,” Harvey Keitel’s sympathetic though patronizing state police officer closing in, Thelma and Louise ditch their outdated dresses and tidy hairdos for sleeveless Harley t-shirts, ripped denim and trucker caps. The meticulously applied makeup is replaced by sunburns, cheat-day snacks like frozen Snickers bars forgotten with bottle after bottle of Wild Turkey. Again, broad strokes— first-time scribe Callie Khouri, who won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay—lays it on thick, if often hilariously. But The Road is rarely subtle, especially here. “Everything looks different … I can’t go back,” Thelma says. The women’s journey to wokeness—or at least Chopin’s The Awakening—is epic stuff, and cast and crew (and car) sell it hard.
There may be no more exquisite instance of this uniform mastery than in a scene set in the pre-dawn moments of an early Monday morning, the weekend over, the cabin getaway never reached, a different road taken. The friends/fugitives drive through Monument Valley, its towering natural structures illuminated in surreal, almost extraterrestrial fashion by floodlights. The scene, set to Marianne Faithfull singing the tragic suburban housewife saga “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” has Scott and Biddle alternating between shots of Davis and Sarandon at the wheel, looking at the camera. They just barely break the fourth wall, a faint smile flickering on each character’s face, lit gorgeously—if unrealistically—from underneath by the dashboard of that tank of a classic car. The 1979 tune’s dreamy synth reverb seems to echo off the caverns as the sun starts to rise, Faithfull hazily singing, “She knew she’d found forever, as she rolled along … with the warm wind in her hair,” and we know—as does Louise, for one—their hours are numbered.
Spoiler alert … 25 years later. Thankfully, an alternate ending—involving that dusty back road stretch of the opening credits—in which the duo appear to survive was scrapped; instead, their fate fades to white as they barrel off the cliff of the Grand Canyon in that bright green behemoth (in actuality, Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab, Utah). The Road has to end—at least theirs does. But what endures is more than the pre-Google Maps adventure, more than the gender role reversal and reductive commentary, more than the Bechdel busting. More than the road-trip-ready soundtrack (featuring B.B. King, Glenn Frey and The Temptations), more than Hans Zimmer’s bluesy score (among his finest and most nuanced), more than the authentic art direction, more than the note-for-note perfect performances was The Road itself—the third character, the chance and adventure. “I always wanted to travel,” Thelma says as their trek nears its conclusion. “I just never got the opportunity.” Trading the pavement for the off-road, the wisdom of Louise’s words is hopeful and menacing: “You get what you settle for.”
I certainly took it to heart, if not yet to mind in my impressionable few 15 years, just as green as that T-Bird convertible. And somehow, however curiously, the open roads of Thelma & Louise seem even more vast and unknown now than they did back then, four decades in my rearview mirror. That widescreen vista still stretched beyond my periphery, The Road is just as visceral—real life made bigger, more vivid, more exciting. Transformative.
Amanda Schurr is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a culture writer in Portland, Ore. She still quotes Thelma & Louise—particularly how Harvey Keitel drawls “Myyy looorrrd”—on a weekly basis. You can follow her on Twitter.