Twenty years after Thelma & Louise became an unlikely blockbuster and an inescapable conversation topic in summer 1991, the film has lost none of its power. That isn’t because it’s a groundbreaking movie, one that plugged debate-sparking feminist provocations into a classic road-movie format in which two fugitives enjoy a short taste of freedom while heading toward a bad end. As inseparable as that element is from the film’s appeal and reputation, Thelma & Louise works as a film first and a statement second. A gripping, moving buddy movie set against the promise and perils of the American West, it remains a stunning reminder that artists with something to say should first entertain.
And however often it dips into darkness—up to and including the fade to white that ends the movie—Thelma & Louise remains a subversively buoyant piece of entertainment. Working from a script by first-time screenwriter Callie Khouri, stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis lovingly depict a friendship strong enough to stand up to a battery of unforeseeable tests. Sarandon plays a sharp-tongued waitress who finally succeeds in luring Davis—the put-upon housewife of a loutish car dealer (Christopher McDonald, never sleazier)—away for a much-needed weekend vacation. Piling into a classic Thunderbird convertible, they find trouble without getting much of a chance to feel the wind in their hair. At a roadhouse, Sarandon rescues Davis from a parking-lot rape, then kills her assailant. Seeing no other options, and expecting no fair shake from the law, the two make a run for Mexico, passing a series of loathsome, disappointing, or dangerous men along the way.
Director Ridley Scott shoots the film at an eerie, effective distance. Davis and Sarandon keep their characters warm and funny—ever more so as the film progresses—but their journey takes place behind an ever-present visual haze accompanied by a foreboding synth-and-blues guitar score from Hans Zimmer, choices that give even the most comedic scenes a tragic undertone. Though those two competing tones occasionally feel misaligned, the same dissonance helps make the movie memorable, and sells its central irony: The deeper the heroines dig into a life of crime, and the further they go past the point of no return, the freer they feel.
That’s a firm foundation on which to build a statement. The further Thelma & Louise’s protagonists move outside the system, the more it looks like a game rigged against women. The more rules they break, the more they realize how much the rules are designed to keep women in their place. There were strong female protagonists before Thelma & Louise, of course, but Khouri and Scott dared to put them front-and-center and make them simultaneously sympathetic and uncompromising. The floodgates might have opened for the strong heroines of the 1990s and beyond without this film, but that doesn’t make it any less a landmark. “Something’s crossed over in me, and I can’t go back,” Davis tells Sarandon as their trip nears its end. Some moments are like that. Some movies, too.
Key features: The 20th-anniversary Blu-ray edition features a pair of commentaries, an extended ending, deleted scenes, and a music video from feminist pioneer Glenn Frey.