Set It Up
A solid romantic comedy with sharp dialogue, amusing characters, and a few surprises up its sleeve.
“You be sweet to your wife. My husband wasn’t sweet to me, and look how I turned out.”
—Thelma Dickerson (Geena Davis) to the cop she just locked inside the trunk of his patrol car at gun point
In 1991, a frazzled homemaker and a put-upon waitress took a road trip in a 1966 Thunderbird convertible that would transform them into a pair of gun-toting, booze-belting, convenience-store-robbing and men-terrorizing outlaws. Yes, “Thelma and Louise” was one wild ride as it boldly gave a genre dominated by male stars—the buddy film—a welcome sex change while making a statement about female fortitude and friendship.
Director Ridley Scott, who previously proved his prowess with a strong female hero in the form of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in 1979’s “Alien," might have been behind the wheel, but it was Callie Khouri’s smartly provocative script and the savvy performances by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in the title roles that put a tiger in the tank of this action vehicle.
During its initial run, “Thelma and Louise” did fairly well at the box office, grossing a little more than $45 million domestically. It was nominated for six Oscars—Davis and Sarandon both competed in the lead actress category—with Khouri winning for Best Original Screenplay. And it stirred up controversy over whether the film was anti-male, as it encouraged audiences to root for these lady lawbreakers after Sarandon’s Louise shoots Thelma’s would-be rapist, and they jointly give a lascivious trucker an explosive lesson in good manners.
The film still holds up and is as relevant as ever, given that the country might be on the verge of electing our first female president at the same time that other politicians are bent on closing Planned Parenthood centers and denying women access to legal and safe abortions.
But as a cinematic event, it feels more like an anomaly than a ground-breaker with lasting impact in Hollywood. While male-driven buddy pics are still as plentiful as ever, there have only been a handful of comparable female efforts. RogerEbert.com critics Christy Lemire, Sheila O’Malley and Susan Wloszczyna take a look at “Thelma & Louise”—25 years later.
Christy Lemire: OK, so how long had it been since you'd seen “Thelma and Louise”?
Sheila O’Malley: For me, about 10 years.
Susan Wloszczyna: I saw it about five years ago since I was doing an onstage Q&A with Geena Davis at the Sarasota Film Festival. But I noticed other things this time anyway.
Christy Lemire: I saw it several times right around when it first came out, but it may have been about 20 years for me.
Susan Wloszczyna: I've probably watched it around 10 times, though.
Christy Lemire: I noticed SO much that I didn't before. I was in college in 1991. I definitely have the perspective of being a grown woman that I didn't have back then.
Susan Wloszczyna: For some reason, I thought it was funnier when I saw it when it first came out. I took it more seriously with each time I have seen it.
Sheila O’Malley: A lot of the same things struck me as they did when I was a younger woman, mainly the transformations they both go through as they get deeper and deeper down the road. The shucking off of the jewelry. Thelma's drinking. The way both of them are liberated by crime in a way they would never have imagined. Those things are still some of my favorite "bits." The outlaw part of it.
Christy Lemire: Definitely—the stakes are so much clearer and more significant in retrospect. But the loyalty of their friendship and the sacrifice they're willing to make for each other rang more clearly to me this time. It resonated more.
Sheila O’Malley: I actually took it much more seriously as a young woman. Now I see it more as an epic crime-spree, mythic Americana-type thing, only with women. My favorite moment in the whole thing? "Good driving."
Christy Lemire: That's so funny! I felt the opposite.
Susan Wloszczyna: Geena is a hoot when she gets so wrapped up in finding her calling as an outlaw. But it changes a bit when she says, "I feel awake."
Christy Lemire: The jokes like that don't seem forced in a moment of tension as they so often do in action movies.
Sheila O’Malley: To take that moment to compliment your friend on her stunt-driving ... it's such a great detail.
Susan Wloszczyna: They both get something from men that they needed, though. For Thelma, sexual liberation. For Louise, knowing her boyfriend would go out of his way for her.
Christy Lemire: We don't really think of Ridley Scott as a director who does lightness well. But he finds a great balance of tones here.
Susan Wloszczyna: “Matchstick Men” sort of had some of that.
Sheila O’Malley: I so appreciated that having her first orgasm was what really made Thelma turn the corner. In the next scene, when Louise falls apart (discovering the money was gone), Thelma totally takes over. She's claimed that part of herself. I got that as a young woman and I love it even more now. Suddenly, Thelma gets all butch. It's so great.
Christy Lemire: I noticed more about the men this time—both how they're portrayed as cartoonish monsters (Darryl, Harlan, the trucker) and how they're fully-drawn, complicated characters (Madsen, Keitel). And yes! Thelma's sexual awakening. It's a joyous thing, even in the midst of such turmoil.
Sheila O’Malley: I so agree. The complaint that all the men are cartoons is silly. 1.) Because how often are women "cartoons" in movies like this? All the time. And 2.) It's just not true. There's a lot of nuance there. Christy—I totally agree. It's an important part of life and she's been denied that. It really transforms her.
Susan Wloszczyna: I love that Madsen and Keitel were so playing against type. And what to say about Brad Pitt? He wasn’t this good again for a long, long while, until about “12 Monkeys.” I love when he taunts Darryl.
Christy Lemire: Such an exciting discovery. His voice sounded higher back then—he was reedier. But so playful and sexy.
Sheila O’Malley: Brad Pitt rules. I love it when they see him again, and he's perched on that thing by the side of the road, looking like James Dean in “Giant.” Smart actor. He knew exactly what that role demanded and didn't complicate it too much.
Christy Lemire: I recall seeing “Thelma & Louise” with my mom and she was like: "Who is THAT???"
Sheila O’Malley: I felt the same way when I saw it!
Christy Lemire: Right—he's complicated, too. A con artist, but he seems to truly care about satisfying Thelma when she needs it.
Sheila O’Malley: It's an important role, considering he's not just a one-night stand. He ushers Thelma into the world of being alive ... and then of course he has to steal her money because that's who he is ... but he grooved on her and had a blast with her. You need to really get that.
Susan Wloszczyna: So what happened? This movie was so good. There are such classic lines. Like, "I know it's crazy, but I just feel like I got a knack for this shit." You would have thought it would have opened the floodgates for more you-go-girl movies. And it really didn't.
Christy Lemire: And clearly there must have been other smart, insightful scripts by women, about women.
Sheila O’Malley: One of the things I liked about it (and even more in this last viewing) was its ambiguity, something I felt was a little bit lost in the think-pieces—"Oh noes, are we condoning violence?"—at the time. Because Louise shoots the man in cold blood because he says that dirty thing to her. The event is over. I like that. That Callie Khouri put the character out on a limb like that. Men get to be ambiguous. Why not women?
Christy Lemire: I wonder if this would have to be a little indie to get made today.
Susan Wloszczyna: Callie Khouri won an Oscar for this, the first woman I believe to win solo. And then she did “Something to Talk About” and “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” and they were OK but not like “Thelma & Louise.”
Sheila O’Malley: If every crime had been "justified,” then we'd have just another moralistic tale about poor, victimized women. This one ... these ladies get OFF on wreaking hell, eventually. No turning back.
Christy Lemire: The movie doesn't judge these women for their actions, which is great. And while they're sexual beings, the film doesn't sexualize them in a way that's gratuitous to please men.
Sheila O’Malley: No, it was very grown-up about sex, actually.
Susan Wloszczyna: Actually it wasn't just adult sex. It was fun sex. For the WOMAN, for once.
Sheila O’Malley: And the undercurrent of lingering PTSD that Louise clearly feels from whatever happened in Texas ... it's all over her face. We never hear the story. We don't need to. It reminded me a bit of Ida Lupino's great rape-culture movie, “Outrage.” How an event like that lingers. I mean, the event was over. They were walking away. He calls her a bitch, and BOOM, she shoots him. In a way, it's indefensible. That's not a criticism. I don't need my Movie Ladies to be role models. I want them to be interesting and complex.
Susan Wloszczyna: Yes. She might not have killed the guy without that haunting her.
Christy Lemire: Before they even leave town, it reveals itself in every part of her life—the perfect tidiness of her hair, her house. She has to have control to feel safe.
Susan Wloszczyna: The way she puts her shoes in plastic bags for their trip.
Christy Lemire: And eventually she learns to let her hair down, literally.
Sheila O’Malley: Christy, Susan: great observations about the neatness of her house and her packing. That was a detail I missed in my early viewings, but it rang loud and clear this last time.
Christy Lemire: In contrast, the production design of Louise's house reflects the chaos she feels to keep up with this demanding, controlling husband.
Sheila O’Malley: Oh yes, that house was a nightmare. I loved how dark it was.
Susan Wloszczyna: I was looking at the article I wrote back in 1991 and how many men and even women felt the need to stand up for the jerk guys in the film. “Anti-male,” it was called. Why wasn't it called pro-women?
Christy Lemire: I had forgotten that Stephen Tobolowsky was in this, speaking of the jerk men.
Sheila O’Malley: And Jason Beghe as the poor weeping cop in the trunk.
Christy Lemire: And it's not anti-male. It shows all different kinds of men. But ultimately it's about women finding a way to define themselves in the midst of them. Also, I realized this time how beautifully the film is paced.
Susan Wloszczyna: By the way, what is with that Rasta guy who blows the pot smoke into the trunk? It comes out of nowhere but I kind of always dig it.
Sheila O’Malley: For me this last time: it was Louise's transformation that really struck me. "I'm going to Mexico." Hair down. It's almost as though she'd been looking for a "way out" her whole life. Like she was born to it. It's not just Thelma who’s "set free." Louise has been dying for a getaway her whole life, probably.
Christy Lemire: It's over two hours and just breezes by. It's so compelling. They're both so excellent in this, you come to care so deeply about them and their journey.
Sheila O’Malley: I agree about the pacing. Not an easy feat, switching back and forth between Thelma and Louise and the cop investigation. I thought it all worked, though. The sense of increasing isolation and desolation. The clouds of dust roaring up behind them, the only car on the road. It's epic. I want women to be in epics, too, in all their bravura and flash and tragedy.
Christy Lemire: It's epic but not overwhelming or numbing the way so many effects-laden epics tend to be today.
Sheila O’Malley: It's human-sized. It's all about these two characters.
Susan Wloszczyna: This is pretty much a perfect script. But while “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” caused a run on buddy films, as did “48 Hrs.” and countless other films, I don't think “Thelma and Louise” did the same.
Christy Lemire: And here we are 25 years later and it's still hard to find films on this scale about strong, smart, brave, funny women. They're comedies—“Bridesmaids,” “Spy,” “The Heat.” Basically anything with Melissa McCarthy.
Sheila O’Malley: It also isn't nihilistic, somehow, even though they become gun-wielding maniacs. The characters are reacting against something, that's very clear. They've had enough. I do agree with Roger Ebert's criticism that the ending— the screen going to white and then the "flashbacks" as the credits roll—was a cop-out. A betrayal.
Susan Wloszczyna: It is even harder. These YA dystopian movies are getting for the birds. Yeah, “The Hunger Games” is fine but what about more Furiosas out there, but in a real time and place?
Sheila O’Malley: It's almost like they had let something pretty powerful out of the bag and then wanted to put it back in again.
Christy Lemire: Right! “Mad Max: Fury Road” is Charlize Theron's movie. Tom Hardy is literally a passenger, even though he plays the title character.
Susan Wloszczyna: I was watching “9 to 5” and even that seems much more in tune to women and their real-life concerns than any comedy out there now.
Christy Lemire: Re: the ending, it's romantic. It's passionate. It feels earned. And the kiss on the lips seals it. Oh my god, I LOVED “9 to 5” as a girl. Saw it so many times.
Sheila O’Malley: It's heart-wrenching. And the golden light on them! “9 to 5” is amazing. Great revenge picture.
Susan Wloszczyna: Sarandon came up with that kiss and only told Davis she was going to do it.
Sheila O’Malley: Wonderful!
Christy Lemire: Such a great moment. A great, pure instinct.
Sheila O’Malley: And the whole film leads up to that moment. It's extraordinary considering how different they are by the ending from who they were at the start. And it was, what, a three-day timeline?
Susan Wloszczyna: By the way, the ending. Fade to white. I think maybe “The Sopranos” should give “Thelma & Louise” some credit. I think it is still a highly controversial conclusion.
Sheila O’Malley: Every step along the way, every role reversal, every gut-check and emotional switch-back, leads them to that moment. There's a feeling of inevitability to it. Susan—it wasn't so much the fade to white, but the happy flashbacks of them having fun as the credits rolled that I didn't care for.
Susan Wloszczyna: Yep. I don't doubt that it had to be that way. Yeah, that sort of undercuts the mystery. No one but you has ever suggested that to me, though.
Sheila O’Malley: I stole it from Roger!
Christy Lemire: I interviewed Geena Davis for this Viceland show I've been working on—“Vice Guide to Film”—for an episode about Ridley Scott. And she said when she read the script, she initially auditioned for the other role, but then they were thinking of giving it to Susan Sarandon. They both had to sign a deal saying they'd agree to be in the film, regardless of which actress got which part. Afterward, she said, she realized that they both ended up in the roles where they belonged. Susan Sarandon is the perfect Louise—she's older, she has wisdom and pain. But it's interesting to imagine them switching parts.
Sheila O’Malley: Christy, I love this casting conversation. Interesting to consider them in the opposite roles, but I agree. Susan Sarandon is seasoned, a leader, a funny and practical actress. Geena Davis is a wild card. The casting as it is works beautifully!
Christy Lemire: And then it's interesting to see Keitel and Madsen—the two good guys—a year later in “Reservoir Dogs.”
Susan Wloszczyna: I would hate for anyone to remake this but, boy, with what is being said and done by certain politicians these days, I wish a real Thelma and Louise could teach them a lesson or two. Trump told a female journalist she was "beautiful" and thought that was OK. That is his version of flicking his tongue at her like that awful trucker.
Sheila O’Malley: There's also a moment that I didn't remember at all: Thelma is robbing the gas station. Louise sits in the car, depressed. She sees two old ladies staring at her through a dusty window. The moment stretches out forever. One of the old ladies almost smiles. Louise goes to put on lipstick and then tosses it out. I am really enjoying thinking about that moment. I don't need to "pin it down" to what it means ... but I like the silent mystery in it.
Christy Lemire: That shot really adds to the mood.
Sheila O’Malley: The movie takes a breath in that moment. A pause. Ridley Scott made something gorgeous and evocative about a moment where a character is just sitting around waiting for the next scene. I loved it. Maybe Louise knows now that she won't get to be an old lady like those two in the window. Who knows?
Christy Lemire: Ah, yes! I like that interpretation.
Sheila O’Malley: That's what I saw, at least, this last time around. The woman smiles at her almost encouragingly, like: "Hello, younger woman, I've been you." And yes, Michael Madsen! Man knows how to wrinkle his forehead in a beguiling way, I can tell you that much!
Susan Wloszczyna: I also like how the waitress in the bar stands up for our heroes. Plus, something about Louise leaving her a big tip even before she takes aim outside.
Sheila O’Malley: Lucinda Jenney! She's great! Yes: Every waitress everywhere would nod knowingly at that "huge tip" line.
Susan Wloszczyna: I just about cried this time when Madsen shows up in person and calls her "Peaches."
Christy Lemire: It's so timeless, and such a great movie for women to see together and celebrate each other. When I was in college, my mom and I used to drive back and forth between school in Dallas and home in Los Angeles. We referred to these road trips as our “Thelma and Louise” adventures. The power of bonding on the road in the middle of nowhere.
Sheila O’Malley: I know, I can't tell you how many road trips I've gone on with a friend and at some point there's a “Thelma and Louise” joke.
Christy Lemire: It's got such a great sense of mood—tense, thrilling, melancholy.
Sheila O’Malley: "Good driving," says Thelma. It gets me every time.
Susan Wloszczyna: I went on a “Gilmore Girls” jag recently and they often reference “Thelma & Louise.” It is sort of like “The Godfather” for women, in a way.
Christy Lemire: It still resonates.
Susan Wloszczyna: I have to confess, my go-to car line is: "Don't drive angry." Maybe I should switch.
Christy Lemire: Well, maybe by doing this talk, we can get women to watch it or re-watch it and have it resonate with them, too.
Sheila O’Malley: It was one of THOSE movies at the time, I do remember that, the kind that get a lot of worried think-pieces, and are they "justified" in what they did, and why are the men so awful, and what's happening to wimmen these days?? It was tiresome then and it's tiresome now. I don't need women to be "strong" in the movies, but I DO need them to be complex and human and watchable. This movie is such a great example of that. I know I had a blast re-watching it. I was amazed at how much of it has "stuck," and how much of it is just part of the landscape of my brain at this point.
Christy Lemire: Anything else we didn't touch on?
Susan Wloszczyna: Guns for one. I have to say that the gun use in this is not like that in a “Dirty Harry” film. It is always justified in some sense and not gratuitous. A girl's got to do what she has to do.
Christy Lemire: And again, the film doesn't shame them for using the gun in any circumstance—the parking lot, the convenience store, blowing up the fuel truck.
Sheila O’Malley: Well, I don't know. By the time they shoot out that trucker's tires, they're pretty much beyond the pale. They just shot that truck up because it felt good. Which I like. I love the moment after they put the cop in the trunk, when they're both loading up the guns, slapping in the clips, as they drive off. It's so bad-ass and poker-faced.
Christy Lemire: But they're abidingly polite about it—toying with the idea of what it means to be "ladylike."
Sheila O’Malley: They're outlaws. And yes, schooling him on his bad manners, which was a beautiful touch. I love how when he approaches them, they perch on the edge of their Thunderbird, and their silhouettes are just like the mud-flap silhouettes.
Susan Wloszczyna: True, but they didn't know it would explode. OK, they do get off on being in charge. But they don't kill the trucker or the cop. They leave breathing holes.
Christy Lemire: Ooh, Sheila, good observation!
Susan Wloszczyna: I noticed that mud flap echo, too.
Christy Lemire: Ooh, Susan, good observation!
Susan Wloszczyna: Thanks, Mom!
Sheila O’Malley: I like them getting off on being outlaws and finding themselves through crime. But yes, they aren't “Natural Born Killers” or anything. They don't want the cop to die, and they don't kill the trucker. But one of the revelations for me was the freedom found in wreaking some hell and not caring anymore. This has been a Male Tradition in films, and I'm happy to see women get a little gun-crazy too.
Christy Lemire: OK, should we wrap up soon?
Susan Wloszczyna: Yes, let's fade to white.
Sheila O’Malley: I think I've said what I need to say ... for now. HA!!!
Christy Lemire: Perfect—sending you both a kiss.
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