Thelma & Louise, Ridley Scott’s 1991 outlaw thriller and arguably feminist text, opens with the titular characters talking logistics over the phone while navigating their respective kitchens, spaces that have come to define them. Thelma is a bored, put-upon housewife. Louise is a bored, put-upon waitress. Their days—one indistinguishable from the next—are spent catering to the needs of others, leaving them both in desperate need of a vacation. An older line cook at Louise’s greasy spoon flirtatiously inquires, “Is this Thelma? Thelma, when are you gonna run away with me?” It’s not so much a question as an assumed matter of time. Before Thelma can think to respond, Louise grabs the handset: “Not this weekend, sweetie. She’s running away with me.” And run they do. After discussing what to pack for their fishing weekend (“warm stuff I guess…it’s the mountains; I guess it gets cold at night”) and a montage of their vastly different packing styles, the best friends take a Polaroid—a highly combustible image—for posterity and hit the road for what they can only assume will be a fun girls trip. By opening with both women confined to their submissive habitats, the film establishes itself as one focused not on the protagonists as “male-bashing” vigilantes, but rather as women rebelling against the imposed structural limitations of gender.
Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) are equal and opposite models of domesticity. Louise leaves her house in immaculate condition, every dish washed, each surface dusted. By comparison, Thelma leaves in a rush, tearing through her closet like a natural disaster. She leaves her unwitting, ungrateful husband in the dark with nothing but a warm beer and frozen dinner to welcome him home. When an overjoyed Louise asks Thelma why her husband, Darryl, decided to let her go, Thelma defiantly replies, “Because I didn’t ask him.” This is the first indication that Thelma, a woman who hasn’t been asked to do anything in a very long time, is done waiting for permission. “He never lets me do one goddamn thing that’s any fun.”
A quest for fun leads the women to a roadside honkytonk, where the normally sedate Thelma and uptight Louise partake in some good-natured drinking and dancing. Drunk and overheated, her head spinning, Thelma goes outside for some fresh air. She’s ushered to a deserted parking lot by her sweaty, aggressive dance partner, and would-be rapist, Harlan. He asks (once more, permission is not really requested, nor actually given) for a kiss, explaining that he has no intention of hurting her, though he clearly does. This disturbingly visceral encounter quickly escalates as Harlan slaps Thelma, slams her face-down on the hood of a car, reaches up her dress, and unbuckles his jeans. Just at this moment, Louise exits the bar and comes to her friend’s rescue, pressing the hand gun shown in act one (“Here—put it in my purse!”) firmly against Harlan’s sweaty temple. With Harlan held at gunpoint, Thelma and Louise have an opportunity to get in the car and drive away. But Louise, who we later learn has her own story of sexual assault, seizes the opportunity for a teachable moment: “In the future, when a woman is crying like that, she isn’t having any fun.”
Crucially, this line implies that Louise intends for Harlan to live to see another day, and Thelma & Louise would be a much different film if he accepted the lesson. Instead, he offers a crude, inflammatory rebuttal, and Louise—fearful, frustrated, and ultimately fed up—fires a shot into his chest. Rather than bundled up in a cozy cabin, Thelma and Louise find themselves breaking down societal expectations and outrunning the consequences of their actions across the arid American Southwest.
Thelma & Louise follows classic road movie genre conventions by taking characters from their homes, thus altering the perspective of their everyday lives. As the vaguely gendered proverb goes: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Thelma and Louise abandon their kitchens—only to find themselves facing a different type of heat. Western Arkansas stifles as they drive across desolate landscapes, plotting their next move. The expansiveness of the scenery, along with a notion of heading west, represents possibility even as the walls close in. As the open road recedes behind them, so too do their past lives. However, unlike the tumbleweeds blowing aimlessly alongside, Thelma and Louise now have agency, some semblance of control in the chaos of their own making. They take turns occupying the driver’s seat.
Outside the car, the harshly oppressive light of day illuminates the harsher realities of circumstance. The sunshine is too bright. Our protagonists are too exposed in Louise’s convertible T-bird. Their drive is punctuated by shots of green grassy lawns being irrigated, rows of verdant crops being sprayed, dusty roads being hosed down by street sprinklers. It’s almost as if man-made conveniences are trolling them. The world they knew before, marked by upkeep and orderliness, has cast them aside without care or concern, and will bring no relief to them now. Meanwhile, Arkansas State Police Investigator Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) is hot on their trail. He tracks down the clueless husband and the helpful boyfriend, taps phones, and eventually speaks with Louise: “You girls are in some hot water.”
Screenwriter Callie Khouri has little interest in the thrill of the chase. These investigation scenes—off the road, if you will—are most significant for their juxtaposition, particularly when it comes to the weather. While Thelma and Louise are confronted with intense pounding sun, it appears to be raining almost everywhere else. The interior spaces they enter, various gas stations and convenience stores, are poorly lit and colored in shadowy sepia tones. But when Slocumb questions Darryl during a torrential downpour, the house is dark and tinted blue. Weather functions as a reflection of mood, the pathetic fallacy in action: heat is a suitable stand-in for untapped reserves of female anger (not dissimilar to the neat rows of pump jacks that Thelma and Louise drive through), while rain represents the attempts of authorities to dampen that rebellion.
In Thelma & Louise, the only image more combustible than a Polaroid picture is that of femininity. In early scenes, Louise has a tidy updo perfectly protected by a silk floral scarf. Her shirt is buttoned all the way to the top. She’s orderly and uptight. Thelma is more easygoing and prone to taking risks, as suggested by her flirty, white halter dress (has there ever been a more ill-suited outfit for a woman on the run across a scorching, dusty desert?), made up hair and face, and standing Wild Turkey order. As the friends’ criminal profile escalates, their domestic femininity deconstructs, hair and makeup stripped away to symbolize liberation. After the shooting, Louise wears her natural, curly hair down. She contemplates applying lipstick, then tosses the tube out the window. She removes all her jewelry and trades it for an elderly man’s cowboy hat, swaps her cat eye sunglasses for a police officer’s over-sized aviators. Thelma and Louise choose clothing for function over form: denim and tank tops and sweat-soaked neckerchiefs. As fugitives on the run, they have no time for conventional fashion or ladylike grooming. Their faces are dirty, sweaty, and sun kissed. They let themselves go, and find freedom and power in cutting ties with their former selves.
At the honkytonk, before their worlds turn upside down, Thelma playfully warns Louise, “Well, darling, look out, ‘cause my hair is coming down.” At the time, she simply meant cutting loose and having some fun. But in a way, she was drawing a direct line to the eventual rejection of the roles they were meant to fill. Thelma’s throwaway line becomes a surprising and empowering prophecy of self-fulfillment. Once she’s living the outlaw lifestyle, as shocked as the audience, she says: “I know it’s crazy. I just feel like I got a knack for this shit.” And she does.
Of course, one cannot write about Thelma & Louise and heat without mentioning J.D., the smoldering grifter played by a young Brad Pitt. Thelma—sweet, trapped Thelma—got married at 18 and has not been with anyone other than her husband. But she literally trips over the sexy J.D. following a fateful conversation with said husband. When God closes a phone booth door, He opens a window—through which Brad Pitt enters drinking straight from a hose.
Thelma, too, has an unquenchable thirst, and J.D. represents the ultimate trap. She takes an obvious and immediate liking to him. When the road-tripping threesome stops in Oklahoma City, Louise’s boyfriend, Jimmy, hands over the keys to a motel room and an opportunity to cool off: “Go on in and take yourself a nice cold shower.” Over the course of their hot night together, Thelma parts with her wedding ring (another symbolic deconstruction) and embraces her sexual agency. Foreplay includes a crash course in armed robbery, during which J.D. brandishes a hairdryer as a weapon. It is no coincidence that an item generally associated with women and beauty stands in for an item associated with violence and masculinity. The blow-dryer, made powerful and dangerous, symbolizes Thelma and Louise’s transformation from domesticated to dangerous. J.D. isn’t a physical threat, but he still puts the women at risk for his own selfish ends. After making Thelma his mark, he steals Louise’s life savings and derails their only means for escaping to Mexico undetected.
In this way, J.D. is a mirage, an oasis of possibility in a desert of hopelessness. His presence and ultimate disappearance is congruent with director Ridley Scott’s cinematic language. The high harsh sun, hotly hazy open roads, and blinding lens flares are used to conjure a sense of realistic drama; conversely, the stylistic use of mirages invokes a different kind of drama. Just as the open road blurrily unfurls as far as the eye can see, the likelihood of Thelma and Louise making it out of their predicament seems vaguely possible at first, but not in line with reality. Scott’s visual symbolism works in conjunction with the incendiary rhetoric of Khouri’s Academy Award-winning screenplay (“Drive like hell;” “Shit! That son of a bitch burned me;” “It’s a good thing he left when he did. We thought we were going to have to put out a fire”). The rhetorical and ideological transformation of Thelma and Louise from models of domesticity to “bitches from hell” is complete when they become the aggressors, acting out of pent-up rage rather than self-defense. If the prior “heat” symbols were too subtle, the over-the-top explosion of a tanker truck is about as discreet as its driver’s crude sexual innuendo. And just like that, their criminal profile has risen as high as the temperature. There’s nowhere to go but down.
During a scene late in the film, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” plays as our fugitives drive through Monument Valley in darkness, with just the moon and two headlights illuminating their way. The song, written by Shel Silverstein, describes the disillusionment and deterioration of a suburban housewife. The desert has cooled off, finally offering respite from the heat of the sun and the heat of the chase. Thelma and Louise luxuriate in the beauty of the scenery and relish this opportunity to travel to the country. For a split second, they are just two best friends on a road trip. And for the first time in a long time, Thelma has something to look forward to. She takes comfort in that dream, if only for a moment, letting it wash over her like a warm wind in her hair. And then, just as quickly as the sun comes up, it’s gone. Deep down, Thelma and Louise both know that their dream of a better life—working at Club Med, drinking margaritas on the beach—is merely a mirage.
The film’s iconic final shot is meant to reflect the Grand Canyon, a vast valley formed by millions of years of water erosion, gradually weakened and worn down, not unlike our protagonists. The ending cuts two ways, contingent upon our reading of it. It could represent finding liberation, by deciding how and when to let go; or, it could represent being deprived of any viable options. Some argue that the ending represents the ultimate punishment for the women’s defiant journey of self-discovery. Still, although it’s implied that they commit suicide, this is a choice that they made, one they saw as preferable to the alternative. If they were only able to live on their own terms for a single lost weekend, at least they could grant themselves the dignity of dying on those terms, as well.
Thelma puts it best: “Something’s crossed over in me and I can’t go back. I just couldn’t live.”