The opening of any film is rife with visual and thematic information and clues that anticipate and inform the rest of the movie. With Thelma & Louise (1991), director Ridley Scott puts a new and gendered spin on both the expansive road movie and the intimate buddy film. Teeming with thrilling, life-affirming energy, exuberant comedy, warmth, and wit, the movie focuses on the two title characters, utterly ordinary, working-class women fleeing the monotony of their lives and discovering unexpected, untapped wells of feeling and strength. Not unlike the Western hero of Hollywood classics, these ordinary women encounter situations and conditions that make them extraordinary. The Western is also invoked through Hans Zimmer’s mournful, tough, galvanizing country tinged score. Even before the first scene, over the opening credits, the music creates a poignant mood that is at once earthly and ethereal, like Thelma & Louise itself—or should it be “themselves”?
The movie begins on a black and white extreme long shot of the wide open spaces of the American Southwest. The setting is muted by the monochrome cinematography, but, as the camera pans right to land on a battered dirt road, the image turns to color, at first subdued and gentle, then ever brighter and more vivid, becoming super-saturated. The shot changes before our eyes from monotone to marvelous as the sky turns a dazzling blue beneath banks of piled-up clouds, and the mountains and fields in the background take on a shimmering green. But as the image grows darker, the sky and earth seem to collide and combine into a dark azure. This one title image anticipates the trajectory of the entire film. Louise and Thelma will escape their monotonous, monochrome existence (and what other symbol would be more appropriate than the road in this opening image?), but their journey eventually takes a turn for the darker.
The first words we hear on the soundtrack are “little honey,” as Kelly Willis asks “are you goin’ out tonight?” At first this makes us think of the female characters and their future trip, but we soon discover they’re nothing like the gooey, saccharine substance of the song’s title, and the lyrics actually refer to their male partners, warning, “If you don’t answer me soon/ You’re coming home to an empty room/ The lights left on, the door open wide/ Windows broken and your picture smashed/ Windows broken and our bed covered with trash/ I’m not looking for a fight/ But little honey, are you going out tonight?”
The first scene places us into the familiar, ubiquitous diner of semi-urban American life, as a throng of waitresses in white uniform occupy the left side of the frame, their neat, light clothing providing a contrast to the colorful clutter on the right side of the screen. Susan Sarandon’s Louise is among them, and the railing in the foreground of the shot makes her look closed in. As she walks right, the camera tracking with her, she emerges from her confinement as she will throughout the film, although she is not yet free—the Venetian blinds still cast their bar-like shadows in the diner.
The open shots and commotion in the background, the noise and people walking in and out of the frame confer the scene a realistic feel. “You girls are kinda young to be smoking, aren’t you?” Louise asks two customers, and they, too, are shot with the railing of the booth in the background like bars, implying that all women are captive in this scenario, not just the title characters. “It lowers your sex drive,” she warns, as the scene cuts to Louise herself lighting a cigarette in the kitchen. These seemingly insignificant details of dialogue affirm she is a strong, outspoken woman with a sense of humor.
As she dials Thelma’s (Geena Davis) number, we see the character’s domestic environment: her house is a disorganized and cluttered mess, and she’s running around, frazzled, yelling she’ll get the phone. “Hey, how you doin’ little housewife?” Louise asks, and we see she is more assertive and in control than her friend. Although Thelma is in her home, where she should feel comfortable, she keeps walking around and fidgeting, pacing like a caged animal, while the calm, crisp, composed Louise seems immune to her hectic environment. When she finds out Thelma hasn’t told her husband about the trip, Louise is disappointed, but not entirely surprised: “Is he your husband or your father? It’s just two days for God’s sake. Don’t be a child! Tell him you’re going with me. Tell him I’m having a mental breakdown,” she advises, as she smiles at the inhabitants of a fish tank. This represents a perfect metaphor for Thelma; like the fish, she is caught in her marriage as if behind glass, to be seen but not heard. “That won’t carry much weight with Darryl,” she assures Louise. “He already thinks you’re out of your mind.” Perhaps he thinks Louise’s insane because she’s not exactly mute and compliant. When asked if she’s at work, Louise quickly quips, “No, I’m at the Playboy mansion,” demonstrating her quick wit and proclivity for sarcasm.
In contrast, Thelma is nothing but “honeys” and “darlings” when talking to Darryl. Her outfit, a frumpy pastel-colored robe with a floral pattern, epitomizes femininity, domesticity, and its disheveled state forms a metaphor for the deterioration of her marriage. The first thing Darryl says is, “Goddamn it, Thelma,” and quickly finds something new to complain about. Thelma is submissive, hesitant, and caring, putting his watch on and offering him coffee, while he only simpers and looks smug while dismissing her. She asks what he would like for dinner, only to receive, “I don’t give a shit” as a response, and the admission of the possibility he might not even be home for dinner. “Funny how so many people want to buy a carpet on Friday night,” Thelma offers; “you’d almost think they’d want to forget about it for the weekend.” “Well, then,” the stupidly self-important Darryl offers, “it’s a good thing you’re not regional manager, and I am.” Twirling his keys, he regards his wife as a lower form of human being, condescending and demeaning her for no other reason than her sex.
No wonder she wants to get away from him. As he makes his way to the garage in his clashing, tacky outfit of striped shirt and patterned tie, he falls on his behind, providing comic relief and satisfaction to all female—and I’m assuming male as well—viewers. While Darryl gets into a nice red Corvette and speeds away after being rude to the people working in front of his garage, we later find out Thelma’s much less luxurious car doesn’t even make it down the driveway. Now there’s equality for you! In these scenes, Thelma is appropriately only shown in the kitchen, where we assume she resides most of the time. The pictures and magazines cutouts taped to the walls and fridge represent the outside world, one that she is not privy to. The color palette of the production design, all drab, dirty pastels, colorless browns, and muted greys represent the monotony and degradation of her relationship, while her light-colored, shabby clothing makes her fade into this environment, becoming one with her surroundings, a non-entity. Later she will be shown in the bedroom, the only other room of her house we see her in, marking the other domain of her marital duties.
When Thelma calls Louise back, the man picking up the phone exhibits the kind of attention and tenderness unknown to Darryl when he asks when she’ll run away with him. Louise answers for her, “Not this weekend, sweetie; she’s running away with me.” Although meant as a joke, the reply has a ring of truth to it that goes beyond the obvious. Of course, Thelma is indeed running away with her best friend, but what the statement implies is the lack of need they have of men; they can run away with each other, and would rather do that than spend their time with a man. Their relationship is so close as to almost border on romantic, as in the final iconic scene, where they kiss before driving off the cliff. As Martha Reeves’ “Wild Night” comments on the soundtrack in the next scene, “all the girls walk by dressed up for each other,” not men. While on the phone, Thelma is eating chocolate, but repeatedly puts it back into the fridge only to take it out again. This act emphasizes her conditioning to self-denial and restraint. Later in the film, she will eat a whole bar of chocolate and enjoy it, a sign that she has learned to indulge in her own needs, wants, and pleasures above others’. Planning their fishing trip, Thelma, always dependent on others and their opinions, asks Louise what to pack and admits she doesn’t know how to fish. “Neither do I, but if Darryl does it, how hard can it be?”
As Louise makes her way to her turquoise Thunderbird convertible and the scene crosscuts between the two women getting ready, Reeves croons, “As you brush your shoes and stand before your mirror/ And you comb your hair and grab your coat and hat/ And you walk the streets trying to remember/ All those wild nights breeze through your mind.” Thelma most likely hasn’t had many wild nights to remember, but she certainly will. The parallel editing between the two characters showcase their differences: Louise is perfectly organized, efficient, and effective as she zip-locks her belongings, mostly dark, neutral, less “feminine” colors and cuts, while Thelma, still in her bathrobe, now with curlers in her hair, is almost childish in her excitement and completely out of her element, dumping her colorful, feminine floral sundresses in the suitcase one drawer-full at a time.
Shots of the two women next to mirrors are also telling: Louise faces her image squarely, fixing the collar of her white shirt and black jacket, while Thelma moves about in front of a mirror without ever looking at her reflection. Louise, therefore, is painted as more direct and confident. And she is also freer. While Thelma’s bedroom windows are completely covered by white, light and airy curtains, Louise’s are only half-obscured by Venetian blinds. Although more concrete and restricting, the blinds are open, allowing for the passing of light; Thelma’s curtains might be dainty, frothy, and feminine—like the character herself—but they block the light. Thelma’s femininity is also made apparent when she handles her husband’s gun, holding it lightly between two fingers as if she’s scared of it. Perhaps Chekov was onto something, because that gun will come back to bite her.
When Louise comes to pick her up, Thelma insists on bringing the lantern even though the cabin has electricity, “just in case.” “In case ‘a what,” Louise asks; “In case there’s some escaped psycho killer on the loose who cuts the electricity off and wants to come in and kill us.” Louise, the more down-to-earth, rational, and experienced of the two replies, “Sure, Thelma, well then that lantern will come in real handy. Maybe we should just tow your car behind, too, in case he steals the spark plug.” Both women are dressed in white clothes and denim, but to different effects. Thelma is again wearing a feminine, frilly dress that accentuates her innocence and naiveté; Louise has on high-rise jeans with a button-down shirt tucked in, a more “masculine” attire. But while Thelma’s hair is down, and she is, for the first time, relaxed, Louise has her hair up and covered by a headscarf, and her eyes obscured by sunglasses. Thelma is shown as the more open of the two, and it is her imprudence and openness that will get both of them in trouble.
When they take a picture of themselves, the film stops for a few seconds on the freeze frame. Cinematically self-conscious, the technique emphasizes how important these memories are to the characters and how they would like to hang on to them. But this image is also static, mute, motionless and directionless, like their lives, and this is what they must leave behind. The next shot is incredibly dynamic by comparison, capturing the car moving towards the camera as the girls laugh and scream and Toni Child’s “House of Hope” plays on the soundtrack. Thelma admits she has never been out of town without Darryl, and her pearls emphasize the importance of the occasion. She couldn’t tell her husband she was leaving, she admits, because “he’d never let me go. He never lets me do any goddamn thing that’s any fun. All he wants me to do is hang around the house all the time while he’s out doing God only knows what.” Blaming the victim, Louise insists, “you got what you settled for,” as if this image of marriage and acceptance of a double standard were very common in their society.
A long tracking shot of the road from a distance captures the beginning of the women’s journey. Just a moving dot through the vibrant, vivid imagery of the Southwest, Thelma and Louise are shown as small and vulnerable, with a very long road in front of them, the road to freedom. Thelma puts a cigarette in her mouth and pretends she’s smoking, explaining, “I’m Louise.” It’s not exactly that they’re one and the same person, although they’re closer to one another than to anyone else in the world, but the boundaries between each other’s characters do, indeed, blur. Throughout the film Thelma takes on some of her friend’s characteristics; she becomes stronger, more assertive and vocal. Louise, in contrast, evolves into a more muted, moving, thoughtful figure. It is on the flawless teamwork between the two actresses that the first ten minutes—and the entire movie—stand. Sarandon and Davis share an easy chemistry, and the dialogue surges, ebbs, and flows with a ring of poetic realism and spontaneity. Thelma & Louise convinces us of its characters’ indescribable connection and their deep, desperate, devastating humanity.