In the scope of Ridley Scott’s filmography, Thelma & Louise sticks out like a 1966 blue Thunderbird soaring over the Grand Canyon. A tight, performance-driven film about two women fed up with the circumstances of their life, it doesn’t seem to belong in the same oeuvre as moody sci-fi thrillers like Blade Runner or Alien, or sprawling historical pictures like Gladiator or 1492. Unlike many of Scott’s films, Thelma & Louise focuses on substance over style, and most noticeably, represents women on their own terms.
Many of Ridley Scott’s films show an obsession for visual control. Every element is saturated to heighten and clarify the mood. By creating atmospheric spectacles, he meticulously details the world. His characters are defined by the landscape that surrounds them. Nowhere is this more evident and elegant than in Blade Runner where Scott interprets the hard-boiled world of the novel by Philip K. Dick [Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?] into a hyper-noir future trip, overwhelming the characters with an air so thick with mood, you can see it.
But the world of Thelma & Louise is not fabulous or alien. It’s a fairly familiar Southern blue collar world, and while there are some epic touches here and there [I’m looking at you, truck explosion], the world doesn’t require elaborate details to make sense of it. The film only hints at things, and allows the audience to learn the rest through the characters themselves. It’s still a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy about people, and more importantly, about women.
Although strong female protagonists are not unheard of in Scott’s oeuvre, they’re certainly not what first comes to mind. When the script by first-time screenwriter Callie Khouri landed on Scott’s desk, it was through Khouri’s friend and Scott’s producing partner, Mimi Polk. At first, Scott helped pitch the film to other directors, but as the list of potentials dwindled, he conceived of how to direct it himself. Khouri, knowing the tenor of Scott’s earlier films, was initially hesitant but eventually agreed, in part after considering Scott’s casting of Sigourney Weaver in Alien.
Weaver as Ripley, a part originally written for a man, constituted a major shift in the kinds of roles women could play. She is the tough protagonist in a sci-fi thriller, and she wins. But she wins by surviving, by making it out of this claustrophobic and violent fantasy alive.
Then there is GI Jane, shot six years after Thelma & Louise. Demi Moore plays Jordan O’Neil, the first woman to train with men in the US Navy Special Warfare Corp. The film chronicles O’Neil’s unbending goal to prove she can keep up in a male-dominated environment. It is definitively a woman’s story, but it is about her ability to embrace the male fantasy and succeed within it.
Thelma & Louise begins with both women caught in a world not on their own terms. But in an act of exhilarating defiance, and what makes this unique among Scott’s films, the women refuse to succeed on other’s terms, to simply make it out alive. They choose instead to push past their limits and live in a reality made up of the consequences of the choices they make, and not just the circumstances they are surrounded by.
That this results in an epic tragedy is not a consequence of their having stepped out of line. Instead, they are heroes who choose to die, if they cannot live free. In a sea of stories where heroic death is reserved for men, this is a radical achievement.