Sunday, December 20, 2009

Thelma, Louise, and Landscape

What is it about inland western landscape that makes it such a rich setting for film? Its features are emblazoned in American consciousness, woven into perceptions of our history and identity. Perhaps its stark, arid texture is intrinsically suited to the violence and romance of drama.

In Thelma and Louise, a landmark movie still too recent to gain popular recognition as a classic, director Ridley Scott develops landscape into its own character. Its evolution matches the maturation of the two main characters themselves.

When it was released in 1991, Thelma and Louise thrilled feminists. Janet Maslin, the outspoken critic at The Times, penned the movie a love letter of a review, citing its “sense of freedom and excitement.” Yet in 2007, Judith Warner, another Times columnist, wrote, “Remember, in 1991, how topical the movie seemed? How revolutionary, how thrilling, how cathartic?” Now, after watching the movie again, “It simply seemed depressing, oppressive and hopeless. It seemed like a relic from the past, a buried memory. It was dark. It was disturbing.”

Thelma and Louise polarized viewers in 1991, often by gender. Some male critics rather defensively criticized the movie’s one-dimensional portrayal of its male villains. Their point is literally true—we never learn why Darryl, Thelma’s husband, is so abusive —but misses the point that intimidation is usually one-dimensional to its victims.

At its core, as Warner points out, Thelma and Louise is about sexual violence motivated by male fears of female empowerment. The attempted rape in an Arkansas truck stop that sparks the movie’s plot is much more chilling than Louise’s shooting of the assailant. Tension infuses every one of Thelma and Louise’s interactions along the road, all of which are with men. The dynamics shift, however; when they reach the towers and buttes of southern Utah, the once spacey and submissive Thelma locks a state trooper in his trunk and blows up a tanker belonging to a misogynistic trucker.

As the two drive deeper into canyon country, Scott lingers on the empty, barren landscape, and he also uses more close-up shots of their faces, emphasizing the dust and absence of make-up. “You feel awake?” asks Thelma to Louise. A moment later, she continues. “Wide awake. I don't remember ever feelin' this awake. Everything looks different. You know what I mean. I know you know what I mean. Everything looks new. Do you feel like that? Like you've got something to look forward to?”

Cigarettes and whiskey bottles are piling up by this point, and the film’s last twenty minutes, with its guns, chases, and vast panoramas, are worthy of a bona fide western. The film’s most ominous shot is a chilling panorama showing their Thunderbird kicking up a long tail of dust along the lip of the Grand Canyon. Slowly, a helicopter glides out from behind the cliff like a bird of prey, unseen by the car’s occupants.

Roger Ebert has justly criticized Scott’s lack of faith in his ending—the freeze frame of the car shooting across the Grand Canyon fades to white far too quickly, and the subsequent shot of Thelma and Louise in happier times robs the moment of its emotional impact.

Nonetheless, Scott makes an important point through this allusion. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, these two outlaws choose to go out on their own terms. Women belong in the history of the west, and not simply as appendages.

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