The Movie 'Thelma & Louise' Isn't Just About Trashing Men

FILM: COMMENTARY

'THELMA & Louise" has sparked both reaction and overreaction among film critics. The movie has been both attacked and defended as a feminist outlaw tale, eliciting comparison with "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969) and "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967).The anger and antipathy this minor film has generated from men is astonishing. Some of the incensed male critics, however, have it wrong. While there's plenty of rage vented at men, what's wrong with "Thelma & Louise" isn't so much its male bashing as its female bashing. Sure, the bad men get thrashed (as always happens in action-adventure movies), but what the film says about women is appalling, backward, and unliberated. In fact, plenty of women critics have described their disgust with "Thelma & Louise" in print. It's a disturbing picture. But "disturbing" here does not equal "profound." The film elevates the baser emotions and celebrates destruction as freedom. Though it very clearly carries the freight of feminist issues, it characterizes its two women - over the course of the movie - as childish, stupid, violently reactive, amoral, easily manipulated, emotional, led by their sex drive instead of their intellect, self-destructive, and, worst of all, as permanent victims - unwilling and unable to act creatively (let alone ethically) in adverse circumstances. Two friends, waitress Louise and housewife Thelma, go off on a vacation together. Before the first day ends, Thelma (Geena Davis) is beaten and nearly raped, and Louise (Susan Sarandon) has saved her friend at gunpoint and then shot the would-be rapist as he verbally abuses her. Louise, we learn, had suffered something similar and the killing is a reaction to that earlier experience. While her violent response seems acutely out of character, let's say we buy it as some kind of tragic mistake. What does she do then? Act responsibly, honorably, honestly, or even intelligently? No. The rest of the film takes up the women's flight from the law and from sanity. A few hours after the attack, Thelma has a motel-room fling with a cute hitchhiker who tells her he is a convenience store robber and demonstrates how he works his trade. She leaves this moral mutant alone in her hotel room with Louise's getaway money. Brilliant. Without money the two women are as good as caught, but instead of turning themselves in to the sensitive detective (Harvey Keitel) who wants to help them, they run. Thelma holds up a convenience store. They punish a disgusting, foul-mouthed pervert by blowing up his truck (the kind of thing that happens in guy movies all the time, for different reasons). Along the way they disarm a highway patrolman who's pulled them over, and lock him in the trunk of his car in the desert heat. All this action so far only follows the conventions. The protagonists have been foolish, but a few sprinkled laughs disguise the import of their behavior. After all, we've seen it a zillion times before in "guy movies" and never minded. The two highly talented actresses twist pallid dialogue into almost-interesting characterizations. The scenery and the soundtrack cook. But their final inane act changes the meaning of all the previous action. Surrounded by police, the women make a decision that voids all the previous action in the film. It wasn't until this final, dishonest moment that the whole film fell into perspective for me. Much of the earlier incidents in the film might have been dismissed as purely antics were it not for this ending. With apologies to William Faulkner, between grief and nothing, they take nothing. These women make their choice - not for some righteous cause, but because they cannot face the consequences of their own actions, their own pointless recklessness. Thelma and Louise haven't even the creative wit to finess some other solution to their problem. Suddenly, the killing of the rapist, the blowing up of the truck, and the cop in the trunk take on different significance. The emotions "Thelma & Louise" arouse are dark, anticreative, and finally mean-spirited. They are not, however, very different from those evoked in pictures like "Lethal Weapon,Robocop,Total Recall," or any of a number of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, or Sylvester Stallone flicks. Most women encounter some kind of verbal sexual harassment in their lives, and unfortunately, many woman experience the effects of physical abuse. The virulent, hateful behavior evidenced by Thelma's husband, the truck driver, and the would-be rapist are neither rare nor particularly exaggerated, despite the protestations of male movie critics. But all in one day? We've been set up. Those howls of approval heard in movie theaters across the country when the two women blow up that truck, although certainly antisocial, are at least as comprehensible as those heard in an Arnold Schwarzenegger revenge fantasy like "Total Recall." The right buttons have been pushed, so by the very conventions of action adventure, the guys who get bashed in "Thelma & Louise" deserve it. BUT maybe there's something wrong with those conventions. What the public finds acceptable in "guy movies" it may despise in female characterizations. Yes, it's a double standard. So the most creative response to "Thelma & Louise" is to ponder the mean-spirited emotions locked in so many action-adventure films. Instead of thinking that "turnabout is fair play" vindicates "Thelma & Louise," maybe we should reconsider the whole violent genre. After all, doesn't a little light need to be shed on the warped nature of so many films that are taken for granted as "healthy escape fare"? The dashing bad guys of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "Bonnie and Clyde however entertaining they may be - embrace death as a kind of romantic escape. It is the embrace of nothingness, which defies any meaning. "Thelma,Butch," and "Bonnie" are all meaning-less. Finally, most individuals realize how ultimately futile rage is, even when apparently justifiable. It may get a person moving, but it never heals the breach between individuals, nations, races, creeds, or sexes.

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