Thelma & Louise

USA, 1991, 130 mins
Director: Ridley Scott

In the summer of 1991, Thelma & Louise was a much talked-about movie, sparking a broad public debate about women, men, guns and the fate of women who break the law. A generation later, we could say that this discussion continues on in new forms yet with many of the same debates. Today, the rise of the #MeToo movement has dramatically changed the public conversation about sexual assault and harassment, and popular, consumer, and political culture is increasingly filled with representations of female empowerment. Yet that movement has exposed just how little has changed about the abuse of male power and responses to it. To see Thelma & Louise today is to understand how much gender power relations have changed and, inevitably, the many ways that they have remained the same.

For a generation of women (and men) who constituted its primary audience in the 1990s, Thelma & Louise remains a beloved and influential film, for some even a life-altering one. We should pause to consider how few films achieve this status as a transformative experience for viewers. This can be attributed in part to the film having cracked open a debate about gender power relations and representation well before its time. The power of the film to open up new ways of thinking and living for many of its viewers is also very much about its message of liberation – not simply its depiction of how women are hemmed in by the law, but its representation of the thrill of breaking free from it. The life transformative effect of the film may be one that is particularly strong for women who say it in the early 1990s, for whom it spoke in a new kind of voice to women’s empowerment, their friendships, their relationship to the law, and liberation from gender norms. Thelma & Louise rendered female subjectivity visible in ways that cinema had rarely done before.

In 2018, Jennifer Townsend directed the film Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise, which aims to grapple with the film’s impact 27 years later, in particular for viewers such as herself who felt that it changed their lives. In the year after Thelma & Louise was released, after it made a huge impact on her, Townsend sent out press releases (in a pre-web, pre-social media era) asking viewers to fill out a questionnaire about their response to the film. Many answered questionnaires of left voice mail testimonies for her. Twenty-five years later, by now in her late seventies and never having made a film before, she decided to find the women and men who had filled out the questionnaires and to ask them on film to reflect on how they had felt then and feel now. Many of her interviewees narrate their initial response to the film as a life-altering one, with the film allowing them to see aspects of themselves and their desire on screen for the first time. For some, the true impact of the film was how it revealed the devastation and consequences of sexual violence, as each tells of their own experiences and that of women they knew, who were raped or assaulted and who had no recourse through the law. Thus, the film’s powerful legacy may be in part because it tells the story of sexual violence from the perspective of its victims.

It is remarkable how the film’s style and story do not seem dated. This can be attributed not only to the relevance of its depictions of gender power relations and the law, but also to its deft mix of tones and genres, from light-hearted comedy to action scenes and car chases to complex emotional drama. The kind of genre-mixing that made the film unclassifiable in its time, as a gender-reversal road movie mixed with screwball comedy, buddy film and action film, is much more common in the 2000s, as popular culture has increasingly entered a post-genre era.

The debate over Thelma & Louise revealed that the film touched a nerve not only in its depiction of women breaking free of the law, but also in its depiction of loutish male behaviour, male violence, sexism and misogyny. In her 2018 book Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny, Sarah Banet-Weiser examines how the surge of popular feminist representation, media products, commodities and movements in this era have been shadowed by a rise of virulent misogyny, filled with rage and a sense of victimhood. The popular feminism that Banet-Weiser writes about is networked, circulating through social media channels. This media environment makes the 1991 world of Thelma & Louise debate seem distant by comparison, taking place in newspaper and magazine articles and film reviews, rather than on Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, it is perhaps mostly the changed media landscape that demarcates the 1990s from today. We see this perhaps most conspicuously in the film itself, with the importance of pay phones (and the quarter needed to use them) in the plot. Yet, the attacks on the film’s daring depictions of misogyny, sexual violence and women’s empowerment (calling it a paean to violence that would sway impressionable young viewers to kill) can be seen, sadly, as a precursor to the extreme conflict today of feminism and misogyny.

Social change moves forward and is pushed back with virulence, and moves forward again. That Thelma & Louise, one might say, aged particularly well is both testimony to the power of the film and to the struggle over gender power relations that continues in new extremes today. Let’s keep watching it.
Marita Sturken, Thelma & Louise (‎Bloomsbury/BFI, 2020) ©Marita Sturken

Directed by: Ridley Scott
©: Pathé Entertainment Inc
Production Companies: Percy Main, Pathé Entertainment
From: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Produced by: Ridley Scott, Mimi Polk
Co-producers: Dean O’Brien, Callie Khouri
Unit Production Managers: Dean O’Brien, Mel Dellar
Production Co-ordinators: Christine Baer, Tracy Defreitas
Production Accountant: Sam Bernstein
Location Manager (California): Michael Neale
Location Managers (Utah): Kenneth Haber, James M. Kelly
2nd Unit Crew Director: Bobby Bass
1st Assistant Director: Steve Danton
Script Supervisor: Luca Kouimelis
Casting by: Louis Digiaimo
Written by: Callie Khouri
Director of Photography: Adrian Biddle
Aerial Directors of Photography: David B. Nowell, John A. Connell
Camera Operators: Alexander Witt, Michael Scott
Clapper Loader: J. Steven Matzinger
Key Grip: Bobby Rose
Still Photographer: Roland Neveu
Special Effects Co-ordinators: Stan Parks, Kevin S. Quibell, Todd K. Jensen, Tim J. Moran, Martin J. Gibbons, Paul Stewart
Film Editor: Thom Noble
Production Designer: Norris Spencer
Art Director: Lisa Dean
Set Designer: Alan Kaye
Property Master: Vic Petrotta Jr
Costume Design: Elizabeth McBride
Key Costumer: Taneia Lednicky
Make-up Artists: Richard Arrington, Bonita DeHaven
Hair Stylists: Leslie Anne Anderson, Anthony Cortino, Karl Wesson
Title Design: Anthony Goldschmidt
Titles/Opticals: Pacific Title
Colour Timer: David Orr
Music by: Hans Zimmer
Solo Guitar: Pete Haycock
Music Supervisor: Kathy Nelson
Production Sound Mixer: Keith A. Wester
Boom Operator: Timothy P. Salmon
Re-recording Mixers: Graham Hartstone, Nicolas Le Messurier, Michael Carter
Supervising Sound Editor: Jimmy Shields
Negative Cutter: Bobby Hart
Sound Effects Editor: Bob Risk
Stunt Co-ordinator: Bobby Bass
Dialect Coach: Timothy Monich
Animal Trainer: Grisco’s Animals

Susan Sarandon (Louise Sawyer)
Geena Davis (Thelma Dickinson)
Harvey Keitel (Hal Slocombe)
Michael Madsen (Jimmy)
Christopher McDonald (Darryl)
Stephen Tobolowsky (Max)
Brad Pitt (J.D.)
Timothy Carhart (Harlan)
Lucinda Jenney (Lena, waitress)
Jason Beghe (state trooper)
Marco St. John (truck driver)
Sonny Carl Davis (Albert)
Ken Swofford (Major)
Shelly Desai (East Indian motel clerk)
Carol Mansell (waitress)
Stephen Polk (surveillance man)
Rob Roy Fitzgerald (plainclothes cop)
Jack Lindine (I.D. tech)
Michael Delman (Silver Bullet dancer)
Kristel L. Rose (girl smoker)
Noel Walcott (mountain bike rider)

USA/UK/France 1991
130 mins

Thelma & Louise BFI Film Classics by Marita Sturken (Bloomsbury Publishing) is available to buy in the BFI Shop.

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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