Tuesday, March 8, 2011

New on Blu: "Thelma and Louise"

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, and it’s something of a bittersweet milestone, inasmuch as it serves as a reminder that what was unique then remains unique today. Callie Khouri’s screenplay was a bit of a big deal because a) it centered on two women, and b) both of them were complex, complicated characters. You didn’t see that a lot in 1991. Trouble is, in 2011, you still don’t see it. Back then, it took a male director (and one with a bit of clout) to get this picture made at a major studio. Would it be any easier for him today? Could it even happen?

These questions are somewhat secondary to the matter at hand—that of Thelma & Louise’s overall quality as a motion picture—but then again, everything in this movie is all tied up into everything else: gender politics, violence, justice, how we perceive the women in our lives, how we perceive the women we see on screen. It’s a loaded gun of a movie, and it doesn’t always go off as cleanly or with as much accuracy as it (or you) might like. But it’s not often that a film takes the kind of risks that this one does, and it is on target more often than not.

The opening scenes pulse with the joy and glory of a weekend getaway—a temporary escape from the drudgery of daily life. Louise (Susan Sarandon) is a diner waitress, counting off the days left in a dead-end relationship with uncommunicative musician Jimmy (Michael Madsen). Thelma (Geena Davis) is a housewife, unhappily married to Corvette-driving sleazeball Daryll (Christopher McDonald). The women plan to take off for the weekend at a friend’s mountain cabin, but when they stop at a honkytonk along the way, their weekend takes a turn.

Up until this point, the goings-on have been fairly lightweight, and the characterizations are deceptively simple—but still effective, to the degree that we feel like we know, right away, who these two are. But the picture turns serious, deadly serious, when a redneck named Harlan (Timothy Carhart) takes Thelma out to the parking lot and tries to force himself on her. The scene retains its power to shock, as does the moment when Louise thwarts the rape and puts a bullet into Harlan’s chest.

The panicked women flee and, with some fits and starts, embark on what amounts to both a crime spree and a journey of liberation. They decide to head for Mexico, and pick up a handsome hitchhiker along the way—played by none other than Brad Pitt, in his breakout role. It’s a small role (this was certainly the last time Pitt will be billed under Stephen Tobolowsky) but an undoubtedly memorable one, with Scott proving himself an equal opportunity ogler by letting his camera linger on the young thesp’s washboard abs. In a rare twist, the male object of desire shows more skin than his female counterpart.

Some critics at the time complained of the dearth of sympathetic or even nuanced male characters—as if that weren’t something a female-penned picture couldn’t maybe get a pass for, all things being even. But there are different levels of playing happening here; Madsen brings some admirable complexity to his character, and Harvey Keitel, as the state police officer tracking the duo, lands some subtle notes. McDonald, on the other hand, is probably too broad (his “Whut? WHUT?” reaction to Keitel’s disclosure of the crime is a sitcom moment), and the pervert trucker who gets his comeuppance late in the film overacts so grotesquely that it drains the satisfaction out of their encounter with him; it’s a cartoon interaction, and could’ve been much more.

For the most part, though, director Scott handles the tone admirably, careening in and out of comic moments with ease; the bit with the New Mexico statey is priceless, and Thelma’s second phone call to Darryl is a little masterpiece of comic cutting. Scott—particularly at this point in his career—was more of an aesthete than a storyteller, but his direction is stylish without being too imposing; he’s always working squarely within the script (which isn’t always the case with him). He relies a bit too heavily on the music cues to keep things moving, but that’s about the only serious complaint.

And this is some of the best work he’s ever done with actors. Sarandon and Davis are both doing a decathlon here—the script calls on them to play just about every beat imaginable, and they nail every one of them. There’s a scene late in the picture that finds Davis laughing and crying in the exact same way at the exact same time, and I’m not sure how she’s doing it, but it’s beyond acting—there’s something transcendent happening there. And then Sarandon turns around and, in the exact same scene, just about breaks your heart.

Early on, Louise is seen as the more sensible and stronger of the pair, and mousy Thelma tends to defer to her. But as their journey progresses, Thelma finds herself becoming stronger, savvier; “I feel awake,” she announces, “wide awake, I don’t ever remember feeling this awake.” It is she who takes the initiative to fund their escape when their money is stolen, and when their journey comes to an end, it is she who finds the emotional truth of the moment and articulates it.

I remember how much controversy swirled around the ending upon the film’s original release (spoiler alert, read no further if you blah blah blah), but it’s clear, especially in their final dialogue, that this ending is the only right or honest one. What’s unfortunate about it is not what actually happens, but how it’s handled: with feel-good music, a cruddy freeze-frame, and TV-style end credit flashbacks of warm moments that came before. It’s rushed and sloppy and is clearly trying to spin some kind of a “happy ending,” as if such a thing were either possible or appropriate. “It's unsettling to get involved in a movie that takes 128 minutes to bring you to a payoff that the filmmakers seem to fear,” Roger Ebert wrote in 1991. Twenty years later, he’s still right.

Minor qualms aside, Thelma & Louise is still a great movie—intelligently written, snappily assembled, beautifully acted. If its final moments remain clumsy and phony, well, that’s forgivable. What’s not forgivable is that a film like this is still such an anamoly.

"Thelma & Louise" is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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