Satire into Myth
Part of Thelma & Louise 's heritage as a belated Western is to begin with a lament for lost space that the main characters only gradually realize has been lost. So much of the early part of the film is set in familiar post-Hopper (Edward or Dennis) interiors: roadside cafés, motels, and crowded apartments; Western space, with all its potential for self-enhancement and beginning again, fallen into the sordidness of small-town limitation. The bar where the adventure starts
looms like an emblem of fallen romanticism hardly up to the already postheroic Urban Cowboy . In the cowboy bootheel slamming of the communal dancing, like some chorus-line crossover of Michael Kidd and Albert Speer, men and women alike wear all the paraphernalia of fantasy western individualism.
In this atmosphere of the ersatz and the fallen, the attempted rape of Thelma in the parking lot and Louise's killing of the rapist cuts through like an icy blast, announcing the violence and brutality under the celluloid-thin myths of self-sufficiency and heroism.
As they escape, when the film truly hits the road, the promise of space and freedom lures them on. But the camera still continues to stress the choking inevitability of the world they are trying to escape, not just the massive machinery, oil drilling equipment, and trucks that constantly threaten to squeeze them out of our vision, but even the seemingly more benevolent spaces and spires of John Ford's Monument Valley.
It's easy enough in many Ford films to point out how narratives that are supposed to cover hundreds of miles all seem to take place within the confines
of Monument Valley. But when similar things happen in Thelma & Louise , the effect is not the creation of a special world, but a sense of being walled in by expectations and walled in by fate, like the grainy television screen catching Thelma's robbery of the convenience store, making her "famous."
Like so many film noir couples, Thelma and Louise finally head for Mexico, the old place of nature and freedom, where you go when the West closes down. Louise's refusal to go to Texas may supply a psychological validity to her killing—the possibility that she herself was raped in Texas. But on the level of the Western and the road film, the refusal of Texas is a refusal of those wide open genre spaces as a solution.
Ridley Scott seems drawn in many of his films to the self-enclosed male character, like Harrison Ford in Blade Runner or Harvey Keitel in The Duellists , whose fragile identity rests on a suffocating pride. The gloomy setting of the films enwraps and restricts him even as he struggles to be free. But in Thelma & Louise , with its female duo of friends, there is a more intense dialectic of enclosure and openness. The sense of fate is qualified by an almost exact existential luxuriance in knowing that fate and facing it.
But unlike Scott's tales of romantically posturing men, Thelma & Louise goes in more for wisecracks and the techniques of comic exaggeration than for self-important despair. Many of the more ridiculous attacks against the film took its assertions as somehow realistic arguments about women, men, guns, and violence. But however real Thelma & Louise may be, it's not realistic. Its violence erupts within a hard-edged satire of wannabe heroism and consumer identity, and it builds to its conclusion through a series of scenes that emphasize the way in which Scott and Callie Khouri's main characters move out of this heightened satiric reality into myth.
First appears the Rastafarian bicyclist in Monument Valley, who blows ganga into the trunk that holds the motorcycle cop. Then comes the broadly painted incident of the truck driver (with its echoes of Steven Spielberg and Richard Matheson's wonderful Duel ). And finally the concluding scene itself, as Harvey Keitel, here the sympathetic cop, watches helplessly as Thelma and Louise launch themselves into space and turn, not into magic heroines who manage to land on the other side, or angelic martyrs who crash into the canyon, but into a brightly colored magazine illustration. This last image echoes, as many have noted, Redford and Newman at the end of Butch Cassidy . But I think more of the freeze-framed Jean-Pierre Léaud at the end of 400Blows , faced with the threatening freedom of the sea. Not gun-toting heroes turning into legends, but hand-holding heroines of thwarted energy turning into a myth of blood, escaping the frame that confines them.