Ask filmmakers or stars about an iconic movie they made and whether they knew it would be a classic, and nine times out of 10 they’ll swear they didn’t. That’s not false modesty: Films are incredibly difficult undertakings, with a thousand obstacles constantly conspiring to undermine the whole operation, so nobody involved is ever really sure if they’ve got a hit or a debacle on their hands. So it’s no surprise that when Entertainment Weekly put the question recently to Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis about Thelma & Louise, they insisted they had no clue. “We thought we were doing a Butch Cassidy or a Jules and Jim,” Sarandon said. “Not making some kind of statement.”
Twenty-five years after its release, Thelma & Louise stands as a crucial feminist film, but Sarandon’s comment hints at precisely why it’s resonated. Funny and playful on top but sad and desperate underneath, the movie only slowly and indirectly touches on gender issues—and by the time you’re aware of the story’s full implications, you’re too invested in its profoundly fallible, lovable characters to ever think that you’re being lectured to. Thelma & Louise’s daffy spirit is in service to a story that’s so incredibly serious that its protagonists (and even its director) have to fight against it. The film makes a statement by resisting the urge—even when we arrive at its still-debated ending.
Which isn’t to say that Thelma & Louise’s makers were unaware of its themes. In the film, good friends Thelma (Davis) and Louise (Sarandon) decide to go on a weekend fishing trip, their fun cut short when Louise kills a man who tries to rape Thelma at a roadside bar. Convinced the police won’t believe that it was self-defense—although Louise’s shooting of the guy as they’re walking away muddies that argument—the pair make a run for it. Soon after, the women lead cops on a chase that goes from Arkansas to the Grand Canyon—but not through Texas, because, well, Louise has personal reasons why she never wants to set foot in that state again.
In the late 1980s, Callie Khouri’s screenplay found its way to director Ridley Scott, who had previously made Alien and Blade Runner. The relatively unknown screenwriter (who would go on to win an Oscar for Thelma & Louise) hadn’t drawn from personal experience but, instead, tapped into her feelings about being a woman in a society dominated by men. “[S]upposedly, women are making all these great strides toward equality, but let’s be honest: It’s still very much a man’s world and you’re still looked at through a very narrow filter,” she explained to NPR in 2011 about her mindset. “And if you step out of line, the punishment is severe.”
Scott liked the script and tried to get his director friends—all men—to make it. “Guys said, ‘I don’t want to do that: These two women in a car, I don’t know about that,’” Scott once recalled. “I said, ‘That’s the point, dude. They are ‘difficult’ because they’ve got a lot to say about who you are.’” Finally, he realized he had to direct Thelma & Louise, in part because he wasn’t sure anyone else would. And in taking on the job, he felt the movie needed to be funny as well as epic. That juxtaposition between the intimate and the grand—between the lighthearted and the mournful—doesn’t always work in Thelma & Louise, but it gave the film its vitality and heart. By trying to rewrite the rules of the mythic outlaws-on-the-lam movie, Thelma & Louise came up with a vulnerable, charmingly imperfect alternative.
Key to the film’s success was the relatable ordinariness of its main characters. Thelma and Louise are not the sort of people who are usually the stars of a movie—in most any other story, they’d be relegated to the role of wife, mom or love interest. And while they’re both textured and nuanced—Davis bringing a bubbly absentmindedness to Thelma, and Sarandon supplying Louise with hard-nosed resignation—these women are believably average Southerners who aren’t particularly happy with their lives but have learned how to cope. Neither superheroes nor woe-is-me martyrs, Thelma and Louise discover to their horror that their escapist weekend—which just as easily could have been grist for a fluffy chick flick—has morphed into a nightmarish road movie, one which they’re completely unequipped to handle.
What’s so touching about Thelma & Louise is how it humanizes the familiar conventions of its genre—intriguingly, sometimes at its characters’ expense. Scott drapes the movie in widescreen grandeur, showing the women drive through gorgeous empty stretches of highway that make you think you’re in a modern-day Western, and all the while Thelma and Louise are felled by their own questionable choices. First, Louise impulsively tells Thelma they need to flee the scene after she kills her attempted rapist. Then, Thelma foolishly leaves their money in the hotel room with hunky boy-toy J.D. (Brad Pitt) while she leaves to brag to Louise that she hooked up with him. And then, of course, Thelma and Louise decide that they’d rather gun the engine and go over the cliff than get arrested at the film’s finale.
Taken individually, any of these choices might seem borderline nonsensical—or just straight-out stupid. But viewed through these women’s perspective, each decision is justified: The “lessons” they’ve absorbed as women have taught them to think in ways that are often self-destructive. Louise’s panic about killing the rapist triggers memories of a clearly unresolved crime that occurred in her past—and also taught her that a woman isn’t always believed when she claims to be assaulted. Granted, Thelma’s impetuousness regarding J.D.—being seduced by his charms and naively assuming he’s not trying to scam her—is dunderheaded, but it’s also in keeping with a sheltered housewife who’s been with her Neanderthal husband (Christopher McDonald) since high school and never had a chance to enjoy the affections of a man who saw her worth. These, then, aren’t “stupid” decisions: They’re the unfortunate byproduct of lives lived oppressed by men.
No wonder Thelma & Louise’s ending—the epitome of those “questionable” choices—still spurs discussion. Some find the ending, in which our heroes drive off into oblivion, to be depressing, even suicidal. But that’s not the opinion of those who made the movie. “[It’s] not a tragedy,” Scott has insisted. “It’s the correct ending because it’s a continuation of the journey.” “It’s a redemptive, kind of positive in a way, strangely romanticized Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ending, as opposed to a bummer,” Sarandon said.
The discussion over the ending—whether it was the “right” thing for Thelma and Louise to do—has raged since 1991, and like so much of this bighearted drama, its intentions get garbled when we try to impose some kind of importance or meaning onto the material. Thelma and Louise aren’t trying to change the world—they just want to go fishing. And similarly, their final act isn’t deeply thought-out—it’s a spur-of-the-moment decision informed by what they’ve seen and endured as women.
The finale, in fact, may be the one moment where Scott’s grandiosity and Khouri’s modest, sympathetic tone match up perfectly. The women’s car hurtling through the sky, and then freezing on screen, is a stunning cinematic image, but it’s also deeply emotional, acknowledging both the characters’ defiance of a male-driven society but also the lingering bitter reality of the consequences for, as Khouri put it, stepping out of line. We can debate Thelma and Louise’s decision, but the “right” or “wrong” of it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they’re so grateful to be free to make it.