Twenty-five years ago today — after considerable controversy, including a New York Times feature on the movie’s screenwriter that asked, “Feminism or Male-Bashing?,” a Time magazine cover story defending the film’s morality, and several awkward late-night interviews in which stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis danced around their characters’ fictional actions — Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, the buddy road movie to supposedly end all buddy road movies, premiered in theaters. But if the myth of Thelma & Louise started with its ending — two women plunging over the Grand Canyon, an iconic image of Sarandon and Davis badassery — the film itself starts innocently, just a couple of waitresses on vacation. Thelma and Louise aren’t career criminals, they aren’t born to be wild. They might have continued their entire lives as law-abiding (and miserable) citizens, but the heated moment of Thelma’s rape and Louise’s act of murder divorces them from the boundaries of normal behavior and pushes them into the realm of outlaw logic.
As long as there have been Westerns, there have been outlaws, and there have been Western movies for as long as there have been movies. But there are relatively few outlaw films starring women outside the realm of exploitation cinema, and so probably the closest analogue in theme and in prestige to Thelma & Louise at the time of its release was the 1969 classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the title roles.
Butch and the Sundance Kid also spend their film on the run, having hit a wall after a crime spree, but if their problems with the law come as a genre-typical consequence of a carefree and clueless youth spent robbing trains and visiting brothels, Thelma and Louise have spent their youths reaping the meager rewards of lawfulness. Thelma is trapped in marriage to a man who won’t let her leave the house. Louise is a survivor of rape, being strung along in another dead-end relationship with a man who won’t commit to loving her. In the aftermath of the murder, Thelma asks Louise why they can’t go to the police and explain that the murder is a consequence of rape, but if it’s Louise’s first time negotiating the law as a perpetrator, it is not her first time negotiating the law as a victim.
“Just about a hundred goddamn people saw you dancing with him cheek-to-cheek, who’s gonna believe that? We don’t live in that kind of a world, Thelma!”
We don’t live in that kind of a world. And you don’t have to look much further than the Dr. Luke or Bill Cosby headlines to know that, even 25 years later, Louise is still right. And that point-blank honesty is what makes Thelma & Louise arresting even 25 years after it first premiered. If outlaw films typically explore the limits of lawlessness, Thelma and Louise only resort to lawlessness once they’ve spent their lifetimes running up against the limits of the law.
From the moment they abandon the body of Thelma’s rapist, Thelma and Louise become arbiters of their own code of ethics, reconsidering how to respond to issues like rape and disenfranchisement beyond the legal demand for patience and docility. What is your responsibility to the state when you can’t expect the state to protect your body? What is an appropriate response for a woman when a man is behaving inappropriately? In considering even lawlessness as an answer, Thelma & Louise becomes an articulation of a feminine morality that acknowledges the paradox of trying to turn justice into a practical system of ethics. The law doesn’t support women’s justice, but you can only live outside the law for so long.
Thelma and Louise’s famous choice at the end of the film to go over the cliff is a refusal of prison, a refusal to face consequences for their actions — but even more than that, it’s a refusal to abandon their newfound ethics. As Thelma puts it before the start of the final chase, “Something’s crossed over in me. And I can’t go back. I mean, I just couldn’t live.”
When the movie was in production, studios were afraid that an ending that included Thelma and Louise’s deaths would be too depressing to connect with a general audience, and they pressured director Ridley Scott to come up with something happier. In the end, what was scripted was what wound up onscreen, and what wound up onscreen in Thelma & Louise is more satisfying than an empty fantasy of happiness. It’s catharsis — it recognizes the world as it is and then gives you the voyeuristic thrill of watching someone else defy that world. Thelma & Louise is a spectacle of justice made for an audience of women who have chosen to live despite its absence. If you want to change the ending, you have to change the world.