Don’t Look Down

Thelma & Louse (1991)

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“I don’t believe one ever knows people in their own surroundings; one only knows them away, divorced from all the little strings and cobwebs of habit.”

 Vita Sackville-West

How often have you fantasized about what it would be like to be friends with someone you admired from afar? Set the scene: It’s a work party, and you’re wearing the outfit that best describes your personality (do you dare to wear your short-sleeved blouse patterned with bright red lobsters?)—one that happens to mirror what the Admired Person might wear. Or you exchange email addresses with someone whose blog you love and plan a trip to the city they live in, not without remembering that they live there; you arrange to meet, and you dazzle this person with your wit and intelligence at their favorite bar, which you insisted on going to—and you make it a point to order their favorite champagne, too. You mimic their mannerisms, or read their book recommendations and listen to their playlists, and think, If only I had the chance. We would get along so perfectly. Should the friendship happen, it would be the stuff of myth. You don’t realize that you don’t want to share yourself, but an altered version of yourself you think this person would love and accept. What’s more, it probably doesn’t occur to you that they might be putting on a bit of a show themselves, that the myth is just that: a myth.

This is the only way I’ve ever known how to make friends, molding myself to fit an image of the person I admire. Luckily, the best friends I’ve ever had have been able to tease out the real me with relative ease. I learned that I didn’t need to try to impress them. These friends are few and they are precious. They’re small, quiet friendships, without many grand or epic moments. Thelma and Louise begins with such a friendship, as far as we can tell: Two friends living commonplace lives somewhere in Arkansas, planning a weekend fishing trip over the phone, which is likely the first trip they’ve ever taken alone together.

When we meet Thelma and Louise (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, respectively), it’s the beginning of the day, and they seem to be living not-dissimilar lives. Louise is gliding through the breakfast shift at a diner, pouring coffee and advising young women not to smoke (“Ruins your sex drive.”), then stepping into the kitchen to light one up. Thelma offers her husband and high school sweetheart, Darryl (Christopher McDonald), a cup of coffee and some kind words for the work day ahead and is met with scorn and condescension. When Thelma admits to Louise that she hasn’t asked Darryl’s permission yet to go on a weekend fishing trip in the Arkansas Ozarks with her, Louise asks forthrightly, “Is he your husband or your father?” It’s probably not Louise’s first time daring Thelma to break the status quo; Thelma happily acquiesces. Louise is likewise leaving someone behind: her boyfriend, Jimmy (Michael Madsen), who’s been touring with his band and hasn’t called. A weekend away from their lives is just what they need.

When they stop at the aptly named Silver Bullet, a smoky country bar, they’re practically ambushed by a cocky, self-assured man named Harlan (Timothy Carhart).

“What are a couple of Kewpie dolls like you doing in a place like this?” he asks flirtatiously. Thelma is instantly charmed, not oblivious to the fact that he’s hitting on her but enjoying the attention. Louise snaps, “Minding our own business, why don’t you try it?” Before long, Harlan is twirling Thelma on the dance floor, beers in hand, until she gets so dizzy that he suggests taking her out to the parking lot for some fresh air (his ulterior motive is painfully easy to read on his face). Before long, Louise is brandishing the pistol Thelma brought in case they encountered “psycho killers, bears, or snakes,” and holds it up to Harlan’s head as he tries to rape Thelma on the back of a car.

“In the future, when a woman’s crying like that, she isn’t having any fun,” Louise seethes. Harlan surrenders, but not before challenging her: “Bitch. I should’ve gone ahead and fucked her.”

There’s a lot to envy about Louise’s heroism in this moment; she doesn’t hesitate to hurt the man who’s hurting her best friend in one of the worst ways imaginable. But we can’t help but wonder how she knows exactly what to say to him—and then how she’s so effortlessly capable of silencing him for good.

I’d like to think I’m capable of risking my life to save my best friend’s. Every time I watch Louise shoot Harlan and tell him, “You watch your mouth, buddy” as he’s slumped against the bumper of the car, I think I could be.

They decide to flee to Mexico; they have nothing worthwhile left to go back to now, and it’s incredibly unlikely that Louise could plea convincingly that the killing was in self-defense. Somewhere between their hometown and Oklahoma City, at a dusty gas station in the middle of nowhere, Darryl commands Thelma to come home immediately. She silences him by telling him to go fuck himself. She stumbles out of the phone booth right into J.D. (Brad Pitt), a virile and felonious hitchhiker. He rides with them to Oklahoma City, where Louise has arranged for Jimmy to wire her life savings. Instead of just wiring the money, he brings it to her in person at the Vagabond Motel.

Perhaps the most defeating scene in the whole movie is when J.D. comes back to find Thelma at the motel. They spend the evening playing Red Hands (a game that involves slapping the backs of your opponent’s hands before they can pull them away—he removes her wedding ring, citing an unfair advantage in the game), trading stories (he’s a talented and rather polite thief), and having sweep-everything-off-the-table sex (the envelope with Louise’s money is sitting on the bedside table). Meanwhile, Jimmy is proposing marriage to Louise to keep her from slipping away. They spend the evening reminiscing about the beginning of their relationship and going over what went wrong. He lets her keep the ring; she ends up trading it for a few bucks and an old man’s straw hat in the middle of the desert. Thelma has the most fulfilling night of her life, but at a cost: J.D. robs her and leaves them penniless by daybreak. Louise says goodbye to a flawed but well-intentioned man she loved, never to see him again. All they need now—all they have—is each other.

The longer they’re on the road alone together and the further away they get, the more they revert to a state of nature, both externally and internally. Louise can’t bring herself to put on lipstick when an old woman sadly peers at her from a café window (perhaps reflecting on what it was like to be young and beautiful and to have the world laid out before you; or remembering how naïve she was as a young woman); Thelma says, “Something’s, like, crossed over in me, and I can’t go back. I mean, I just couldn’t live.” What would be the point of putting on appearances anymore? Was there ever a point?

We don’t know what drew Thelma and Louise together in the first place. When Detective Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) searches Louise’s apartment, we see a photo of the two in high school, holding textbooks and smiling widely. What we do know is that they’ve grown together, and never more so than when Louise saved Thelma from being raped. We also understand that you can actually know very little about your best friend, no matter how long you’ve known one another. Louise refuses to go into detail about what happened to her in Texas all those years ago. She informs Thelma, “Look, you shoot a guy with his pants down, believe me, Texas is not the place you want to get caught.” Detective Slocumb tells Louise, “I know what’s making you run. I know what happened to you in Texas.” We can only guess at what happened, like Thelma does. We’re only allowed to know so much.

What could it have been that drew these women together in their youth? Darryl was no doubt a sticking point in their teenage years—there likely would’ve been a good deal of competition between him and Louise, both vying for Thelma’s attention. Perhaps Louise tried to convince Thelma that she was too good for him, that there would be other, more meaningful romances after high school. No doubt, too, each admired something in the other (Don’t so many friendships begin this way?): Perhaps Louise envied Thelma’s innocence and subconsciously made her protection a priority; perhaps Thelma admired Louise’s headstrong manner from afar and wanted nothing more than to be in this girl’s orbit. They’ve always stayed close to home, likely confined within the walls of a neighborhood bar, or Thelma’s house under Darryl’s watch, and very rarely alone together: Thelma admits to Louise at the beginning of the movie that she’d “never been out of town without Darryl.”

It’s through Louise’s instinct to protect and empower her best friend that Thelma is able, ultimately, to be freed of her husband, of everything that’s ever been expected of her. No longer does she have to stay home while Darryl’s “out doing God knows what,” or ask him what he wants for dinner, or be scolded for asking him that question. By killing Harlan, Louise gives Thelma the encouragement to thrive for the first time in her life—and she frees herself, too, of any inhibitions she might’ve had about defending her best friend against anyone who ever held her back. Such a gesture of friendship—of love—can only be paid back in full in one way, and Thelma delivers: She sees the journey through to the end.

Some friends demand more of you than you’re able to give. Sometimes, someone you admire is underwhelmed by you, despite (or because of) your attempts to impress them. But other times, you’re just the kind of presence that person has been looking for—or that they didn’t know they were looking for. This friend is impressed less by your talent or wit than by how natural it is to be around you, how you respond when the friendship calls on you to step up and, eventually, your ability and willingness to act on their behalf. In these friendships, small acts of generosity and kindness can turn into gestures of love, and—if you’re persistent enough—into a great story.