Thelma and Louise
scowl. A scintilla of tension, held or released. A rifle report. A kiss. Cinema is composed of privileged moments, born of pulp and transfigured as art. In Scenes, a writer will study one of these moments. The approach is up to the writer. They may analyze the scene from a technical standpoint, discuss the dramatic elements in play, or find personal correspondences. Enjoy.
The year is 1991, two women on the Bible belt just shot a guy and took off for Mexico, and mainstream American cinema is reluctant to catch up. Hurl labels at will, but whatever you call Thelma and Louise—martyrs, caricatures, liberators, criminals—there’s no denying their influence. Major actresses broached and shied away from the script for months, but from the moment Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis decided to take on two Arkansas women who would rather drive off the Grand Canyon than back into their former lives, the film was immortalized in American popular culture.
And there is no image more iconic in Thelma and Louise than that final descent off one of America’s consummate landmarks, the Grand Canyon, a subversive manipulation of both the iconography itself and our expectations. No one went into this movie expecting the heroines to die, and up until the moment they do, it seems almost impossible. A justifiable shooting tumbles into armed robbery and more, and still, even up to the penultimate chase sequence (a dazzler in its own right), there’s never a doubt that these women will escape.
Except that they don’t. Of course, figuratively, the scene in exactly that, a refusal to return to a way of life from which the women unwittingly escaped. As director Ridley Scott says in his commentary on the DVD, “The only real solution, I think, was to complete the journey—that is, to go on.” That’s true, and part of the movie’s genius is that it can hide this fact until the moment it makes its intentions for the characters clear. But what’s often forgotten is not the act of suicide itself, which fits, but what comes after—an emphatically upbeat fade to white with a jolt of Hans Zimmer score that sounds like it applies to a cozy Hollywood ending, not the violent death of the two principal characters. There’s even a photo montage over the credits, reminding you of just how happy the women were before they died.
Let’s back up. The minutes that led up to the scene, which are decidedly solemn after an exhilarating chase sequence, project the opposite image from those final moments. Thelma and Louise sit silently as the camera rests on the hood of their Thunderbird, cut with long shots of a hot, dusty, unforgiving desert. The Zimmer score here is grim and fateful, overbearing in its sense of menace and finality. Then, suddenly, Thelma slams on the brakes, and the irreverence that sustains this otherwise bleak movie manifests itself one last time. Overlooking a massive periphery they had nearly just barreled over, Thelma, in her faintly Southern twangs, asks, “What the hell is this?” “I think it’s the goddamn Grand Canyon,” Louise offers.
Then, another shock: A police helicopter flies out from below the cliff, and as they begin to retreat, the women are surrounded by police officers who look none too reluctant to use their rifles. A detective (Harvey Keitel) who seems genuinely sympathetic is there, but his presence is dwarfed by the chaos. Thelma looks to Louise. “Let’s not get caught,” she says. “Let’s keep going.” Thelma’s brief confusion mirrors the audience’s, and then moments later, “You sure?” With that, the blue sky in full focus and the dust calm and settled, the women kiss in exasperation, and from afar we see Louise floor it for the cliff ahead. Slow motion kicks in, that inspirational score begins to overtake our emotions and, as car guns it for the edge, we see that dutiful cop run after them. The car flies over the edge, and just as it begins to tip down toward the bottom of the canyon, we see that flashy fade to white.
It’s easy to get caught in the moment, which people have for years, but a viewer with respect for the movie outside of its road-movie genre roots should question it. Even at the time, many denounced the movie because the final scenes were so unabashedly celebratory of the women’s crimes, refusing the subtext for the plain-faced plot at hand. Ebert wondered if the filmmakers were simply afraid of letting that final shot take its natural course.
Sure enough, the DVD offers an alternative, which goes on to show the car as it begins to flip over midair to the noticeably different tune of B.B. King’s “Better Not Look Down.” The scene eventually cuts before full impact to a shot of the Keitel character looking over the edge and a symbolic take of the Thunderbird driving away from the camera against a flatteringly lit desert landscape.
If this doesn’t sound especially different, I suggest screening the two back to back. Scott says he always intended this as a happy ending, and both cuts achieve that effect to an extent, though the one that accompanied the film seems almost to hide the fate of the characters. Though Thelma and Louise’s death is not about consequences, the original cut is more affirming because it ties the film inescapably to the read world. (Scott says it detracts from the final impact of the women’s moment, which is laughable compared to the shortened ending.) Yes, it’s the ultimate escape, but it’s not glamorous; these women pay a definite price for forgoing social rites, and there’s also an important tragedy in how far they have to go to get away from the lives they hated.
Even the fade to white itself is dubious. Many films do it, but when filmmakers diverge from the convention of black fades, it’s usually a device. This debate arises particularly when a movie like Paradise Now, which was already denounced as too sympathetic in some (political) circles, had a climactic suicide bombing at the end that faded to a clear, brilliant white. Think about it. Does the fade in Thelma and Louise underline the sense of bittersweet accomplishment Scott intended, or does it inspire forgiveness for the women’s final act, which is, after all, socially demonized? Does it in effect absolve them of their final “crime”?
This is not an easy question, but for the people who have touted the film as a subtle milestone as well as a masterpiece of its genre (count me in), it’s an important one to acknowledge. Granted, this was 1991, not 1961, but the social and political complexity of Thelma and Louise—paired with the ingenious play on road-movie conventions it employs to achieve it—has made the film a modern touchstone. We may ultimately have to cede that the sliced-up conclusion is what it took for this movie to be made and released when it was. But with a glimpse at the original ending, it’s hard to deny that that final image of an endless drive south leaves a far more indelible, and more telling, impression.
By: Jeffrey Bloomer
Published on: 2007-08-09