Release Date(s)1991 (May 30, 2023)
Studio(s)MGM (The Criterion Collection – Spine #1180)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A+
Thelma & Louise has the trappings of a buddy movie but turns out to be far more. It focuses on two young women stuck in destructive relationships who see in one another a kind of freedom they’d never had. Though not a feminist polemic, the movie is a groundbreaking look at female empowerment.
Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) are ordinary working-class Arkansas women. Thelma is married to a self-important carpet-store manager who regularly belittles and cheats on her. Louise is a waitress living with a musician who likes having her around but pretty much takes her for granted and shows no sign of wanting marriage. The women are friends and seem to come alive when they’re in each other’s company, so when Louise is offered the use of the coffee shop manager’s fishing cabin, she and Louise plan a getaway weekend, just the two of them, answerable to no one but themselves.
In Louise’s car on their way to the cabin, they stop at a honky tonk roadside cafe to get some food and listen to the music. Despite Louise’s warnings, Thelma drinks in the flattery of a smooth-talker named Harlan (Timothy Carhart) along with too much booze, dances too closely with him and, reeling drunk, lets him lead her out to the parking lot, ostensibly to get some air. There, Harlan tries to rape Thelma and would have succeeded had Louise not turned up and threatened him with a gun. He backs off, but makes a disgusting remark that touches something Louise has long repressed and she shoots him dead. Seeing that there were no witnesses, the women flee. Thelma wants to go to the police, but Louise is determined to reach Mexico.
The harder they try to keep a low profile, the more trouble rears its head. They refuse to act in the manner expected of them and will not tolerate any form of male authority. One misadventure after another gets them deeper and deeper into hot water.
Arkansas police detective Hal (Harvey Keitel) is investigating the murder and picks up on a clue that Thelma and Louise might have had something to do with it. J.D. (Brad Pitt), a hitchhiker the women pick up on their way to the border, isn’t as innocent as he seems. Both will have a significant role in the women’s road trip. The more Hal learns about them, the more empathy he feels. He understands why they may have made a bad situation worse and tries to avert what could become a tragedy.
The roles of Louise and Thelma are meaty and well written. For an early 1990s film, it was unusual to make two women the central characters. Louise is the tougher of the two, in part from having to deal every day with demands of cafe customers who feel entitled to say inappropriate things or let their hands wander where they shouldn’t. She needs the job and the tips, so she tolerates it but she seethes within. Thelma is a sheltered woman whose husband makes all the decisions for them. She’s far more vulnerable than Louise and looks increasingly uneasy as they assert themselves. This is the first time Thelma has taken charge of her own life, which can be both frightening and exhilarating.
The screenplay, by Callie Khouri, makes Thelma and Louise real people who recognize hurt and repression in each other and form a bond. Unlike your typical buddy flick, this is not a joke-a-minute laugh fest, though there is some humor. The story is actually pretty dark. Louise kills Harlan when she and Thelma could have walked away. Because of how brutal he was with Thelma moments earlier, he gets what he deserves and the sympathy rests with the women. We learn later what triggered Louise.
The chemistry between Davis and Sarandon makes this strong script click. We believe them as friends—oases of supportive companionship in a male-dominated world. Each is distinct in manner, speech pattern and intelligence, yet there’s an emotional connection and we believe that they regard a weekend alone together as a true vacation from the disappointments and frustrations of their lives. Their road trip compels them to take charge and determine their own destiny.
Director Ridley Scott and cinematographer Adrian Biddle captured some spectacular panoramic views of the southwest as the women run from the law. Mountains, red rock formations, sweeping views of open country, and aerial shots of a seemingly endless desert depict an unspoiled, massive country with one lone convertible making its way along dirt back roads against brilliant sunsets.
The screenplay never hits us on the head with preachiness. Instead, the themes are realized through action. During their road trip, Thelma and Louise discover independence, empowerment, and courage, which is thrilling for them. As they revel in their new-found fearlessness, we root for and applaud them. These themes raise the film above a simple action road picture and account for its continued resonance for over 30 years.
Thelma & Louise was shot by director of photography Adrian Biddle on 35 mm film with Arriflex 35-III and Panavision cameras, Panavision and Cooke lenses, and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Criterion’s Blu-ray release (also released on UHD) features an aspect ratio of 2.39:1. According to information in the enclosed booklet, the new digital transfer “was created from the 35 mm original camera negative, which was scanned in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner.” The photography is especially notable in the long shots as Thelma and Louise’s car makes its way through beautiful, unspoiled country. In an early roadside cafe scene, the room is filled with cigarette smoke, giving it a hazy appearance. Details such as the women’s hair, clothing patterns, printing on the sides of trucks, and objects in the diner where Louise works are well delineated. Complexions are rendered well, and Thelma’s battered face after an encounter with a would-be rapist is covered in blood.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. According to information supplied in the enclosed booklet, “the 5.1 surround soundtrack was remastered from the original LCRS magnetic track... On the Blu-ray, (the feature) is presented in high-definition SDR (standard dynamic range).” Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. In cafe and bar scenes, ambient noise, music, and sound effects such as clinking glasses are mixed so that dialogue is not muffled. Notable sound effects include a dramatic gun shot, explosion, police sirens, a loud truck horn honking, car and truck engines, and disturbing sounds of a struggle when Thelma is nearly raped. Hans Zimmer’s score is appropriately lighthearted or somber, depending on the scene. In the final chase sequence, action music amplifies the excitement.
There are two discs in the Blu-ray set from The Criterion Collection. Disc #1 contains the feature and commentaries. Disc #2 contains the rest of the bonus features, which include the following:
- Audio Commentary with Ridley Scott
- Audio Commentary with Callie Khouri, Geena Davis, and Susan Sarandon
- Ridley Scott: Beginnings (22:23)
- Interview with Callie Khouri (20:02)
- Boy on a Bicycle (27:50)
- Ploughman (:33)
- Thelma & Louise: The Last Journey (59:37)
- Original Theatrical Featurette (5:23)
- Extended Scenes (33:17)
- Storyboards: The Final Scene (5:50)
- Storyboards (4:37)
- Deleted Scenes (14:02)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (2:02)
- “Wanted” TV Spot (1:02)
- “Call of the Wild” TV Spot (:32)
- TV Promo Spot (:32)
- Music Video – Part of Me, Part of You (4:27)
Commentary #1 – In this commentary from 1996, director Ridley Scott talks about his early years as an artist, working for the BBC, and making short films and ads. For 15 years, he made TV commercials, educating himself in the art of cinema. His first feature film was The Duellists (1977), followed by several successful films. He felt at a point that he had to move away from action and science fiction movies to avoid being pigeonholed, and he found the characters of Thelma and Louise appealing. After speaking with Geena Davis for a couple of hours, he was convinced she would be a perfect Thelma. He thought Susan Sarandon conveyed a “streetwise” sensibility that would work for Louise. Scott goes on to discuss establishing a stress-free mood on the set, working with Davis and Sarandon, finding locations, solving problems that arose during filming, and establishing the right tone for the film. He values actors who contribute ideas, noting that an actor’s instinct “can help enormously” in shaping a character. To avoid the old-fashioned technique of using rear projection, special rigs were constructed to film the women driving. Scott was under pressure to complete filming in Utah. If he didn’t finish, it would add $600,000 to the film’s cost.
Commentary #2 – Screenwriter Callie Khouri and actors Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon share this commentary. Khouri speaks about her inspiration for the story and says it took her six months to write. She gave Geena Davis a typed history of Thelma so the actor would have a solid basis for her characterization. Davis and Sarandon reminisce about various scenes in the picture in a casual back-and-forth conversation that reflects a comfortable rapport between them. Davis speaks about working on her regional accent. Apart from Sarandon talking about driving in one sequence while being shot from a camera mounted in a truck in front of her, the women don’t go into technical detail. Davis discusses experiences in her own life that affected her performance as Thelma. Thelma and Louise become complete human beings during the course of their road trip. Both Davis and Sarandon were nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for their performances.
Ridley Scott: Beginnings – Director Ridley Scott and film critic Scott Foundas discuss Scott’s beginnings as an artist and how those early experiences formed his approach to filmmaking, including his preparation for and direction of Thelma & Louise. Scott’s first film was in black and white. He would also direct several commercials before getting into feature film production. Some of his films include Someone to Watch Over Me, Alien, and Blade Runner.
Boy on a Bicycle – Filmed in West Hartlepod and Seaton Carew in London in 1965, this 16 mm black-and-white film was Scott’s first and stars his younger brother, Tony.
Ploughman – In 1968, Ridley and Tony Scott founded Ridley Scott Associates (RSA), a film and commercial production company. At RSA, Ridley Scott made thousands of advertisements, including several for Guinness. This ad was released in 1977.
Callie Khouri – Screenwriter Callie Khouri takes a look at the 30-year history of Thelma & Louise and explores the influences that shaped her development of the film. She compares the movie’s initial reception with how it came to be regarded by critics and audiences through the years.
Thelma & Louise: The Last Journey – Made in 2001 by Charles de Lauzirika for the film’s tenth anniversary, this lengthy documentary is divided into three parts—Part 1, Conception; Part 2, Production; and Part 3, Reaction and Resonance. Featured are director Ridley Scott; screenwriter Callie Khouri; actors Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Brad Pitt, Christopher McDonald, Michael Madsen, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Jason Beghe; producer Mimi Polk Gitlin; and composer Hans Zimmer. The making of the film from every possible perspective is covered.
Original Theatrical Featurette – This promotional film features actors Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, director Ridley Scott, and behind-the-scenes footage.
Extended Scenes – These include Extended Ending, Extended Ending with Director’s Commentary, First Motel, Talkin’ ‘Bout Darryl, Hal on the Case, Second Motel, Thelma and J.D., and Looking for a Break.
Storyboards: The Final Chase – Storyboards are shown in split screen with corresponding film footage, the boards at the top and the footage at the bottom. Scott talks about the importance of storyboarding.
Storyboards – Storyboards alone are shown full screen accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s score.
Deleted Scenes – These 10 scenes were cut to eliminate redundancy, maintain the pace, or keep the running time reasonable. They include Silver Bullet Getaway, An Imperfect Clue, Police Sketches, Smitten with J.D., Human Behavior, Hal at Home, Jimmy, J.D., and the Law, Fear of God, On the Road, and Hot Pursuit.
Music Video – This 1991 video features musician Glenn Frey and his song Part of Me, Part of You from the soundtrack to Thelma & Louise.
The enclosed 32-page booklet contains essays by Jessica Kiang, Rachel Syme, and Rebecca Traister, color photos, cast and credits list, and reprints of a typed script page and handwritten script pages. There’s also information about the digital transfer of the film from the original 35 mm negative.
Thelma & Louise, seen in light of the #MeToo movement, has particular resonance. At one point, Louise says, “You are what you settle for.” Their road trip changes that completely as both women are in control and make all the decisions, many wrongheaded, but giving them a new freedom that their lives back home never could.
- Dennis Seuling