Man, the trailer for this film. Talk about false-advertising as to what the film really is. Seriously, if you saw the film and haven’t seen the trailer, watch the trailer:
It plays it out like it’s a typical road comedy, trying to hide how serious it gets. That’s like if someone made this the official trailer for David Cronenberg’s The Fly:
Anyway, I’ve been revisiting the 90s over the past couple of weeks, and this time I’ve revisited a film that generated a bit of controversy at the time of its release (1991), yet that didn’t stop it from being a financial success, a film considered a classic. The main reason for its controversy and classic status (although films can be considered classic because they’ve stirred controversy) is due to its feminist message. A real bona-fide feminist message, not some half-assed one filled with bodily fluid and private parts jokes and all that bullshit.
From the opening moments, the film gives the feel of being a Western, big in scope (that’s not what it is, just the feel the opening gives). Then goes as a road trip film. Disguising itself initially as a light-hearted one. You know, like those films Shag (ironically enough, Geena Davis wears a black shirt with a confederate flag on it at one point, linking it a bit with that movie), All I Wanna Do, and Desperately Seeking Susan. But by the 30 minute mark, the film turns out to be anything but lighthearted. Sure it has some lighthearted moments, but then the (attempted) rape scene comes up and begins a chain of events that turn the road trip into a journey with tragedy destined for the end. Because in the world of the film, and somewhat in the real world too, there are a large enough number of men who are assholes who treat women like shit, the world is male-biased. And because it’s male-biased, the women cannot (or at least choose not to) take the reasonable course of action, because at best that would put them back into the same situation they were living in, which is bad in Thelma’s case.
The whole vacation/road trip is a way for the women to live independently, outside of the familiar male-dominant lives. But living in this way is dangerous, as the liberating actions and rejection of tradition “subservient to men” roles is challenged at nearly every corner. So they react violently, unwilling to take it anymore. The situation gets worse with each action they take for themselves. From shooting a rapist, to robbing a convenience store, to imprisoning a cop, to blowing up a truck driven by a man who only views women as sex-objects. But there are high points amidst all this, the fun they have together, the fun they have being with some men who aren’t just pigs (one of them is a robber, but it’s a sexy robber played by Brad Pitt in the prime of his life, so that’s not so bad).
This is primarily why the film stirred controversy back in 1991, because of it’s depictions of men, because of its feminist message. It’s a film many were shocked that was made back then, and in an article written by Raina Lipsitz, states that it’s a film that like wouldn’t have been made in 2011 (the time the article was written), and that it’s message has been lost in this day and age (again, the 2011 years). I don’t agree with everything stated in the article (such as the claim that there aren’t any decent feminist films out there like this one, that most are anti-feminist, yet a quick google search for “feminist films” tends to make that argument not hold very much weight), but the writer raises a couple points that are worth discussing.
Why didn’t Thelma & Louise usher in a new era for women in Hollywood? As the reactions of certain critics in 1991 revealed, even smart, educated people are disturbed by female characters who assert control over their lives and bodies and aren’t punished for it. And as Callie Khouri told The Observer in 2001, “Bad guys get killed in every goddamn movie that gets made … that guy was the bad guy and he got killed. It was only because a woman did it that there was any controversy at all.”
At least back then we got to have the controversy. Today, we don’t make movies about women that are even worth fighting about. Whenever I’m dispirited by the crassly sexist ethos that governs Hollywood (as well as television, politics, and the corporate world) today, I think of “Thelma and Louise” and remember a time, not so long ago, when women were allowed to be human, if only in the movies.
Now considering the atmosphere of today, many would like to have people believe that movies are made about women that are worth fighting about. People who claim to be pro-feminist, all about women power, standing up for the mistreatment of women. And one of the films worth fighting for that is supposed to be empowering for women is the fucking Ghostbusters remake, or so some people would say.
“If you don’t like this you’re sexist! If you don’t like this you’re a pig!”
How about, “I don’t like this because it’s a piece of shit film that falls short of other films that are actually solid and earnest with their feminist messages, and Ghostbusters falls way the hell short of them. Because I have high standards! I’m not going to lower them just because you plan on shaming me if I don’t! Go watch Mad Max: Fury Road!”
It all seems like a sham nowadays. Like global warming/cooling. Now hear me out before you go all green peace on my ass, I’m not saying global temperature change is false and that no one should be supporting the cause or something like that. Like feminism there are things to worry about when it comes to that cause, because there are legit concerns that should be addressed. But there are also people who try to act all self-righteous about all this and claim to fight for this cause when in fact they are just hypocrites out for a paycheck. So when they say, “You’re sexist if you don’t watch this!”, what they really mean is, “Fuck you if you don’t give me your money and make this a financial success!” Not every movie that is (or claims to be) about feminism is good anymore than every cause/movement/study/corporation/individual/etc that is for cleaner air/energy is worth funding. Granted, me stating something like this as a male probably doesn’t help matters much, because some will say, “Why is a man making this statement about women?” Well at least I’m not a man who has a wife who I mistreat every day of every weak. The equivalent to someone like that would be Al Gore claiming to be for clean air and efficient energy while driving around cars that have shitty mileage that run heavily on oil and gas, and living in a mansion that uses an ass-load of electricity everyday. The good causes exists, but there are hypocrites who claim to be for the cause, like how most of the men in this film probably think of themselves as decent people when in fact they’re not.
The film does have male characters who aren’t assholes, such as Louise’s boyfriend , or the detective trying to bring them in peacefully, and I guess Brad Pitt’s character to some extent (depending on how you look at it). But this is very much a woman’s film, a film that cries out for a better world for women to live in, where they can live independently and not at the whims of men whom they’re expected to marry at some point, and where they can do so without meeting aggression against them. And the two main female characters are well-developed, have distinct personalities, and have faults as well as strengths. Many of the men have faults, but some are shown to have strengths as well that make them stand above the others, becoming distinct themselves in the male-dominated society, standing apart from them.
I do wonder how a film like this would be treated if it were made today. Not because I don’t think it wouldn’t get made (I’m positive it would at this point), but as to what the reactions would be. How many would shout out against it or take issue with it due to its feminist stance? How many would praise it for the same reason? How many would just watch it for the film that it is and just try to enjoy it ignoring all the outside troubles of the world (even if the film tends to remind one of them from time to time)? How would they praise/rebuke it and for what reasons? Films, after all, are supposed to be a means of escape from the harshness of reality, much like Thelma & Louise’s vacation was supposed to be a means of escape from their reality of submission/suppression. They just wanted to have fun. Film-goers just want to have fun. None of them/us want to do so unreasonably. Damn those who try to deprive them/us of that. Leave us alone and let us have our fun. We need our means of escape from reality every now and then too.
On the film Itself
The film is good, you should go watch it.
Oh ok, I’ll expand on the actual film itself, putting aside the feminist theme. The film is good. It has a raw gritty feel/atmosphere to it, yet that never overwhelms the whole “road trip movie” feel of it, in that it’s still a journey of self-discovery and a means of escape for one’s own enjoyment. Thelma is the housewife of an uncaring husband, and Louise is someone who carries the weight of a crime committed against her in the past. A youthful individual and a more mature individual who is more experienced with the world, one who is oblivious to how harsh it can be (outside of the house she lives in). Thelma goes through a character arc of becoming less oblivious to things, but in the process converts to a more wild and chaotic individual who will do anything for fun, and will take increased drastic measures to keep the fun going. What starts off as a road trip gone awry via an attempted rape starts to go further and further off the rails the longer it goes, with the women slowly but surely embracing a criminal lifestyle.
One may wonder if things would’ve turned out alright if they just turned themselves in after murdering the rapist, but at best, that would be questionable. There are doubts. And considering the past experience Louise has had with the world, knowing how unfair it is, she’s unwilling to take the chance, convinced that they are now damned and must live a life on the run, at least until Mexico, if they can get there. Even though there are plenty of men in the film who make up that pessimistic picture of the world that Louise fears, thereby justifying her fears, there are also a couple individuals who stand in stark contrast to all of that, showing a sign of hope amidst the world, but not enough hope for her. Louise’s boyfriend, a nice guy who cares for her, who wants to marry her, but learns he can never have her, because she doesn’t want to belong to any man. That and she just can’t see how it would ever work out. Then there’s detective Hal played by Harvey Keitel, who seems like a reasonable man, wants the women brought in peacefully and given a fair chance at life rather than just locked in prison without giving it a second thought like several other officers want to do. His sincerity is confirmed with his speech to Brad Pitt’s character (one who ends up robbing the women), making him feel guilty by pointing out that he likely robbed the women of their only chance at getting out of this alive and with a hopeful future. The situation must be resolved before it gets worse.
But due to the rape and the robbery, the harsh nature of the world, Thelma evolves into a more radical individual, and Louise soon goes along with her. Because they aren’t in a peaceful environment, they change to adapt to their environment. Eventually they determine they are past the point of no return. There’s no going back to their previous life. It is a fault of the individuals around them, and a consequence on how they chose to respond. Virtually everyone loses in the end as a result. If only things had turned out different. If only Thelma wasn’t so dense. If only those men weren’t such assholes. If only Louise wasn’t wronged in the past in similar circumstances.
I still wonder if the character-study aspect of it, which is important in a film like this, isn’t a bit lacking. There doesn’t seem to be enough solid character moments in this film. Perhaps some more confrontation was needed. Not negative confrontations, there’s already enough of that to evolve Thelma’s personality, but confrontations that bring to light their view of the world, of the men in their lives, among other things. There just didn’t seem to be enough of that. At least not enough to make it a fantastic movie, just enough to make it a solid movie. It just needed a little something more. Just my opinion, and maybe a rewatch will change my mind.
But otherwise, the film is still fine as it is and is worth watching, if only because of an interest in film studies, regarding films that had a cultural/societal impact.
Edit (1-23-2019): I take back what I said about the real world being male-biased. It may have used to be that way. But during the early 90s, at best (likely during the 80s), that changed. They may claim what they will, but considering the amount of women judges/politicians/teachers, and women who win out on court cases, this is not a male biased/dominated society anymore. Hasn’t been that way for decades. For a 101 explanation of this, I can recommend the documentary The Red Pill.