© 2016 by James Clark
The career of Ridley Scott offers a fertile sense of the glories and the pitfalls of contemporary film. Most particularly, his connoisseurship of conflict, resentment and equilibrium meets in the workplace and marketplace a bizarre and bruising dismissiveness, notwithstanding superficial salutes.
Feeling to be at his best when giving a consummate twist to the products of others, Scott unveils works tending to be remarkably at odds with the inceptions, stories and screenplays of those populating the credits. Having a keen eye (and heart) for natural and historical incidents significantly pertaining to the preparations on hand, he very subtly provides his rip-roaring, usually quite winning, dazzlements with far less plebeian ranges of nourishment, far more aristocratic ranges of problematics and sufficiency, than the public would suspect. As we make our way through Thelma and Louise (1991), being equipped by feminist screenwriter, Callie Khouri, we must be on our toes to comprehend why such exclusivity strikes him as the way to go.
Thelma and Louise is probably Scott’s most beloved film due to its vividly coloured story line of a couple of long-term underdogs suddenly finding in themselves regions of delight and largeness hitherto eluding them. Their means of migration consists of the honky-tonk sensuality of thatmodern-times Dixie they inhabit. Thus as those ambiguous credits march by, we are treated to elegant and delicious drafts of Arkansas rural landscape with fleecy, frozen clouds as well as a country road in the vicinity of Texas; and infectious strains of a country-rock, twangy guitar melancholy and softly sexual. On that magic enough, it might seem, carpet of super-regional verve, there stands out from a large staff a waitress, Louise, typically regionally incorrect in smoking up a storm, shown on the job at a visually sedate family restaurant (she dressed in a uniform of almost mid-century hospital nurses’ lineage) laced with a country-western woman vocalist on the radio, with her hurtin’ tune.On that note she serves coffee to two young women who have asked for regular (not like the decaf grannie, daughter and granddaughter team at her first stop); and she good-naturedly teases them, deadpan, with reference to their being rock-solid normal in smoking away, “You girls are kinda young to be smokin’ this thing… ruins your sex drive…” Then she rings up a less stolid but clearly hurtin’ Southern true romance case, Thelma, remarkably wound-up in screaming at the top of her lungs by way of signalling to her noise-sensitive husband that she will answer the phone. She furtively admits to her friend that she’s having trouble telling her testy husband, Darryl, about those two 30-somethings’ weekend getaway that is imminent. Louise tells her, “Don’t be a child.” They do embark (Darryl still in the dark), taking a lift-off selfie with a big old Polaroid camera, smiling brightly. Hearing that her friend is quite frozen with anxiety about the master of the house, Louise (definitely unmarried), aghast at this domestic quagmire, offers a truism which includes a most painful challenge: “You get what you settle for.”
But after that shaky start (including the wife’s bringing along fishing gear and also the hand gun Daryl had bought for her years ago, she refusing to learn how to operate it), they steer (by way of Louise’s Thunderbird convertible derived from thousands of carefully banked tips) onto a local highway which includes an ageing cowboy on a three-wheeled motorcycle; and they let the radio sort of work toward their being free and excitingly dangerous. It chirps, to their sort of boppin’ along, “Where are we goin’… I don’t care!” Then, Louise, protesting that they’re already stuck with driving in the dark before they hit her boss’ fishing cabin, allows herself to indulge Thelma’s wanting to follow up her vamping-style smoking as regarded in the rear-view mirror by stopping somewhere where real wildness could be in the air. They pull into a roadhouse/truckstop where the air is heavy with smoke and the band, paying no heed to conveying the lyrics overtopping what is in fact quite ancient, echoey rockabilly, rebranded as Austin blues, is gratifyingly disinterested. “Good band!” Thelma yells, on standing up and clapping the beat; and Louise bobs along too, while staying seated. (On their entry, she had yelled to her friend, “I haven’t seen a place like this since I left Texas…”) Real wildness comes quickly. A regular (Harlan) takes Thelma and her load of quickly downed Wild Turkey to the dance floor, spins her till she’s so dizzy she needs to go to the parking lot for air; and his raping her is interrupted by Louise with that mixed blessing of a firearm.(Thelma, basking in the revival of Eddie Cochran and the cocktail, had joined the singer with a war song of her own, “I’ve had it up to my ass with sedate! I’m gonna let my hair down and really live…” Harlan had started with, “I’m not gonna hurt ya. I just wanna kiss ya… C’mon!” After his little kiss on the cheek she quietly asserted, “Let me go now.” And when he started rubbing her thighs she added, “I’m married…” “That’s OK, I’m married, too!” is how he hoped to introduce a wild place by which he vaguely defined himself. In the aftermath of his disconnect of wildness, she slapped him once, he slapped her many times, bloodying her nose, he called her, “Fuckin’ bitch!” and told her to “Shut the fuck up!” after she cried out, “Please don’t hurt me, Harlan!” Then she screamed.)
Louise, who had told Thelma to get her feet off the dashboard, aims the safety-first gun at him and when he persists she sticks it under his left ear. Her still quite mainstream rescue mission lifts off from that baseline of carefulness (there is a cross cut passage of the girls getting ready for the road, and Louise’s place is spotless); and in doing so it tears open a tsunami of very raw impatience with slovenly procedures. Very “out of character,” it seems, she allows herself in the unique circumstances to drop the register of gentle scold and replace it with energies hitherto under wraps. “You fuckin’ asshole. I’ll splatter your face all over this car” [on the trunk of which his operations were proceeding]. He tries to smooth things over by claiming, “I’m just having a little fun…” In response, she latches on to the benign and efficient cop timbre seen at the sedate café by which she had routed rowdy Texas. “Looks like you got a real fucked up idea of fun…” She feels she has to add, “In the future, when a woman’s cryin’ like that she isn’t having any fun.” Harlan bridles at this dash of superior disapproval within the haunt where he usually feels uplifted in quite vaguely mysterious ways, as well as crude ways. Thinking to be in the presence of that segment of society he frequents the so-called Silver Bullet to avoid, he errs in assuming that a push-back for the home team is in order. “Bitch! I shoulda goneahead and fucked her!” Harlan having inadvertently shattered, in that way, a truce in force for a long time, Louise displays a recklessness which surprises herself as much as Harlan, and Thelma. “What did you say?” is how she loads up. “I said, ‘Suck my cock!” he retorts—suicidally, as it happens. Louise not only puts a hole in his heart but she goes on to copiously display her own suicidal ways. While Thelma’s shock takes the form of, “Oh, my God! Oh Jesus Christ! Louise, you shot him!” the shooter comes up to her prey and leaves an invisible calling card: “You watch your tongue, Buddy!” Indicative of her invocation of seriously wrong stuff (along a stream of intent having ranged far beyond rescuing her friend), she had joined Thelma (whose juvenile standpoint had already begun to corrode the cause) in blurting out, “Oh, my God!”
The erratic twists and spins of the Thunderbird’s exit and jackknife stab on dark, slick, rainy routes shimmering with neon lights seem more to suggest space flight than a noir getaway. They include a run-in with an 18-wheeler the grill of which recalls one of the incarnations of the unwelcome visitor in Scott’sAlien (1979). “You fuckin’ asshole!” the resentful driver screams out. Thus tasting a world no longer conducive to her buttoned-down efficiencies (We saw her putting on a tailored midnight blue, sequined jacket before driving over to Thelma’s) and close-to-the vest sizzle (notably that T-Bird), she tells Thelma, who had advised turning herself in and claiming self-defence, “You’re livin’ in another world” [thinking that the law would give her, and her erratic dialectic, a break].
She also, morosely contemplating that pistol from the death seat, reports, “I’m gonna stop at a place for coffee. And I’m gonna stay for a few minutes to get it together.” Thus begins a rally at a sit-down diner off a service road (a sedate juke box at each table), telegraphing their being more at ease, however critically, with workaday folks and their simple obtuseness than amongst bar-fly crazies. Reaching a booth where the truckin’ is on the order of successful long hauls in contrast to vagabond burnouts, Louise gropes for a valid jump-start. “Now’s not the time to panic. Panic now, we’re done for…” She takes solace in the fact that nobody saw them (forgetting, unfortunately, that many did see and identify the vehicle going through the motions of a demolition derby). Some recourse to hard facts would be not exactly wrong. But it begs the question of the viability of sustaining and cultivating the attention to kinetics which the trip was all about. In face of this huge preoccupation, Thelma’s typical, “Some vacation… It’s sure fun…” and Louise’s, “If you weren’t so concerned to be having fun…” demonstrate that handicap. But Louise, for all her rather dry circumspection, does have a gear leading to getting it together. Scott provides ample time to show us a figure unlocking a corridor of intent which he regards to be long overdue—not merely in the case of Louise, but the case of all of us. What could absorb us as a complex murder rap and apprehension is about to be decisively superseded by the astonishingly consequential rap of curbing hate with a “together” of ecstatic force and regal processes. During the sniping about who is at fault, the jukebox puts across a trouble-plagued Opry hit, “I don’t want to play house,” a fitting send-off for that most difficult departure from banal domesticity. (En route to the bathroom, a flaccid Thelma bumps her coffee cup onto the floor, shattering it. In that same embrace of shambles, she checks by phone into her home front and we see the microwave and the meal [with explanatory note about her absence] she left for her contemptuous husband off partying, with the clock at zero.)
While Thelma is out of the way during that coffee time at the seedy oasis, Louise, her face more desolate than frightened, after vomiting at a stop on the slashing highway, begins to measure the immense ordeal implicit in the change already overtaking her. In the washroom before hitting the road again, Louise looks long and hard at herself in the mirror. Then she repeatedly rubs a place on her cheek, doing nothing so much as confirming that her dilemma is deep-seated. By the time they’ve reached their next stop, a motel, Louise has formed a counter-attack against the forces her careless move has brought down upon her.Shooing a teary, self-pitying Thelma off to the pool, she calls her boyfriend, Jimmy (whom, at the Silver Bullet she lumped with Darryl) and asks him to send her holding of $6700. in savings to her at a Western Union office in Oklahoma City. During this conversation with a remarkably accommodating and yet confused friend and nondescript home field musician, she embraces the severity of her new life and from there embraces turning the catastrophe into an adventure the likes of which she has obsessively denied herself. “I’m in deep shit Jimmy… Something real bad happened. I did it and I can’t undo it.” This interplay has been almost imperceptibly visited by a song the timbre of which coincides with the daring and traction taking its first steps. On putting that in motion she gets into her T-Bird, quickly comes by the pool, wakes up Thelma and her voice is full of verve. The song catches fire and sunshine sizzles over a flat and barren terrain.
“We can never know about tomorrow
But still we have to choose which way to go
You and I are standing at the crossroads
Darling, there is one thing you should know
You’re a part of me, I’m a part of you
Wherever we may travel, whatever we go through
Whatever time may take away
It can’t change the way we feel today
So hold me close and say you feel it too
You’re a part of me, and I’m a part of you”
The ride out of town and its frisky and fervent accompaniment—“I look at you as your whole life stands before you/I look at me and I’m running out of time/Time has brought us here to share these moments/To look for somethin’ we may never find…”—deposits a sense of phenomena being more about viable discovery than escape. Can the girls live up to it? Could anyone in their circumstances live up to it?
The struggle for “Somethin’ we may never find” takes on more specificity as Louise announces, on the heels of those musical trade winds, that she, now with finances to play, is headed for Mexico (chords with Camelot). “This time things changed. Everything’s changed… I’m goin.’” She hears from Jimmy that the cash will be at the Vagabond Motel under the code name “Peaches.” Thelma, initially reluctant to move to Latin America [still pretty OK with being a perpetual 17-year-old suburbanite], has, by phone, such an acute update of her husband’s domineering, hostile presumptuousness (arrestingly insufferable along the misadventure she has absorbed, however feebly) that she tells him, “Go fuck yourself!” From this heady moment of plying the elements for the sake of a masterful and murderously demanding—and loving—creative freedom, things steadily unwind, notwithstanding shots of exuberance. At this point, Thelma buys dozens of tiny shot bottles and drinks them constantly, providing a graphic display of the frantic artificiality of the way the quest is pursued, especially by her; but, also, to a significant extent, by Louise.
It does not take the baby on board very long to increase their conspicuousness. But Thelma’s playing the outlaw does induce motifs plunging deeper into the quotients of difficulty and delight they had never dreamed of when tailing that three-wheeler.She picks up a cute, so-called college boy, “J.D.,” and in the course of getting impressively screwed by him, fails to keep under their control the $6700. (Jimmy having delivered the money in person, and Louise, not wanting to implicate him as an accessory to murder, immediately distancing the dough in her friend’s motel unit where, as it happens, she was entertaining a hard-core thief). What is noteworthy about this insufficiently rootedwhack of “the way we feel today” is the way the girls are far less beaten down by the loss of the war chest as compared with the puking delirium of the demise of Harlan. (Here we should recall that the work crew at the driveway of Thelma’s place that day includes a dude named Homer. It’s definitely an odyssey going on. But odysseys don’t always come off sublime. The first moments of their being both aboard the Mexican magic, they thrill to a sunny sky and verdant farmland, and their cool speed and cool streamline horsepower; and then they thrill to a crop duster zooming overhead and we think of the exciting but essentially tidy odyssey of a juvenile playboy growing up, in the film,North by Northwest(1959. There is nothing tidy about Scott’s sense of “Coming of Age.”) Louise is shattered and silent. Thelma tries to maintain that she can recoup on such a mess. After muddying the silence with, “Son of a bitch burned us!” she rattles off a cognitively incoherent but emotionally arresting patter. “Louise, you OK? I’m sorry… I mean it! It’s OK, Louise… [the latter interjecting, “It’s not OK. None of this is OK…”]. Louise cries quietly and Thelma rallies her with a calm voice, “Don’t you worry about it. C’mon, stand up. Just don’t you worry about it!” Thelma drives her depressed friend to a desolate crossroads market and robs it on the order of her short-lived boyfriend’s having given her (during tumescence) a clinic on easy-going crowd and cash control—an unforgettable revelation, eliciting from her the praise, “My goodness, you’re sure gentlemanly about it!’ (We and the gathering police presence investigating this singularity, based at Darryl’s, see the near-farce felony on the almost otherworldly, black and white and blurry surveillance camera record.) That twangy, foxy guitar accompanies their celebrating the return to solvency, Louise’s laughter now almost as cartoonishly shrill as Thelma’s. (Sort of) back in business, they tangle (frequently) with a propane fuel rig driver in the course of passing him—his lewd gestures and remarks (“Hey, baby, you ready for a big stick?”) including a dragon facsimile of sticking out his tongue. Cast, therefore as knights clashing with his wrongness, there is, on leaving him behind, a night-time traversing of mesa country where they both feel blessed to be in such an embrace of indescribable beauty. Thelma dozes off and Louise parks the car where she can walk to a vantage point to allow the early dawn to reach her with overwhelming directness. A close-up of her face indicates that she is both grateful for having come to this plateau and also aware of the very short life-span left to her (redolent of Pris and Roy in Scott’s Blade Runner). Capping this scene, Thelma coming up to break the spell, and we have a low-rent ditty with the line, “At the age of 37, she knew she’d found her heaven.” In a variant of the (most tempered) triumph at the market, they finally lure that in-and-out propane road warrior, going their way, to a dust field off a seldom used stretch and proceed to blast his truck into a fireball leaving that trucker/customer not nearly as tranquil as the shoppers watching Thelma loot the store. (There is, it hardly needs mentioning, no sign of the Joan of Arc fireball moment we see in Scott’s Alien. Sublime integrity does not well coexist with the vastly compromised self-satisfaction of their violent revenge. Their clownish victim hops around like a cartoon and decries them, “Ah, you bitches from Hell!” Maybe that’s going too far; but it does nail their having too much of the wrong stuff. In the same vein of disabusing us of their being heroic in a feminist mold, they, soon after stoking those hell fires, have a run in with a traffic patrolman and they lock him in his trunk after shooting a few air holes for him. His swagger dissolving to fear and tears does nothing so much as cast light upon their lacking input of convincing gallantry in a dodgy world. (A while later a black cyclist in cool gear blows weed into one of those holes. Making vengeful waves. But, in the last analysis, going nowhere.)
So it transpires that long before reaching the border of Mexico the small army of their pursuers get them in their sights; and after a spirited zig-zag final fling in the chic and dusty T-Bird Thelma—who had firmly declared to Louise on feeling that the latter’s communication by phone to HalSlocumb, the homicide detective whose jurisdiction includes the Silver Bullet, might be leaning toward surrender, “Something’s crossed over in me. I can’t go back. I mean I just couldn’t live… I’m awake. I’ve never been so awake. Everything looks different. I feel I’ve got something to look forward to…”—seeing that behind them is a wall of lawmen and their machines and in front of them is the ledge of a cliff tracing down to the floor of the Grand Canyon, suggests to her friend, “Let’s keep goin’.” They smile. They kiss. And as they shoot into spacethey hold hands. They had become exponents of “crossing over”—ecstatic, stylish and sickened by world history in all its (to them, transparent) tawdriness. Right after Thelma’s heist at the rural Market, Louise praises, “I think that’s your callin’!” Thelma replies, “Could be… Call of the wild!” And she howls, somewhat like Roy, near the end of his tether, in Blade Runner. But Roy doesn’t find it cool to gulp down those shots of fire water, prompting Louise to ask, “Whattaya gonna do, stay drunk all day?”
The main, though not dominant, police figure, Hal, frames his calling in a way strikingly different from that of juvenile Thelma and homicidal Louise. Being able to capitalize on the Hollywood getaway, he traces the green ’66 Thunderbird to its [vacated] home base (though being urged to forget that angle by the waitress who served the girls and asked the soon-to-be-shot-up, looming over them, “You’re not botherin’ these girls are you, Harlan?” Her rationale had to do with the generous tip they left and her having a supposed waitress’ sixth-sense when it came to human nature. “Neither of those two is the murderin’ type, Hal…”) He gets a break in the arrest of J.D. with all that money. During his interrogation of the smug, gentleman nihilist, Hal conveys that bagging miscreants is not the major aspect of his procedures. He (and a posse extrapolating from having Louise’s address to hear about Jimmy’s actions and subsequently tapping Darryl’s phone) does quietly appreciate that she is indeed not a murderer despite having committed murder. He slaps J.D. around to get him to attend (however obtusely) to the nature of his caring far more about the girls than a cute but dead soul. “Do you think Thelma Dickinson would have committed armed robbery if you hadn’t taken their money? There’s two girls out there that had a chance. They had a chance… And now they’re in serious trouble. And I’m goin’ to hold you personally responsible if anything happens to them. I’ve got no feeling for you. There’s a small chance I can actually do some good. [If they die] I’ll be all over you like a fly over shit for the rest of your natural life. Your misery will be my goddamned mission in life!” (Strident, yes. But the underlying chivalry about his calling should not be underestimated.)
Looming at the Cliffside, within the Alien-style black, insectile chopper, Hal is sickened by the squeeze in effect. “Hey, don’t let them shoot those girls!” he yells at his sidekick/boss (the lines of authority a bit vague here; but Slocum’s authoritativeness being the story). As they go over the edge he runs into their dust-plume, waving hopelessly. The key pitch of this picture is about what drives him to care that much. True, as Hal assures Louise—in one of those cat and mouse bugged calls she seems only too eager to keep going—he commiserates with her on his finding that she had been raped in Texas before seeking out more low-key energies. But the understanding of her state of affairs involves going far beyond waitress-level comprehension of human nature. During a prep of Darryl for dealing with Thelma (and getting a bead on her whereabouts) should she call, Hal probes as to how isolated she had been. “Do you have a good relation with your wife?” The more complex instinct behind his probe becomes apparent in his seemingly inconsistent insensitivity going forward. Brushing aside Darryl’s platitude, “I love Thelma,” Hal re-establishes the issue of “close to her.” When Daryl replies, “Yes, I guess I’m about as close as I can get to a nut case like Thelma,” Hal laughs heartily at this, adding to our touching upon his enthusiasm for loose cannons. The recipients of his delicate solicitude clearly can be pretty low-grade jerks and still make the grade. We’re not about dogmas of be nice or fry; or following in the footsteps of some saintly celebrity. (The chivalry coming to light here is light-years away from the pieties of the history of Camelot.) Hal (far more gutsy than Kubrick’s Hal) is driven to bring forward the best in situations with others because that manoeuvre comprises the consummate cultivation of the gorgeous wildness the girls have come to, too late. Loving others on the run (or musically, polyphonically) like that does not mean you have to like them or put up with them forever. They’re lovable because they’re much more than disparate agents, and the loving is in the overall dynamics which Scott’s cinematography brings to riveting cogency. Louise’s sunset to remember informs the scenario with a concentrated flare both momentarily illuminating and a portal for much more extended powers. (At this moment of poignant vision we can measure her accomplishment by recalling, in that first scene at her workplace, her snubbing the intergenerational trio and then immediately warming up to the two [cooler] young girls.)
Jimmy, too, a troubadour in cowboy arabesque shirts (a Jimmy Demy sweetheart kind of guy [in the orbit of J.D. but vive la difference] most salient in his first film, Lola[1961), brings forward, like Hal, a chivalry devolving to something other than Diamond Wedding anniversaries. He readily works as a mule to bring Louise the gold and, though she makes clear their time together has run its middling course, he offers her an engagement ring. “Whyn’t you try it on? I just covered two states to see you [two states perhaps being a celebration in itself]. You know I hate to fly…” (Or does he?) The concentration of love in this trajectory partakes of something that doesn’t include impressive liking. After smashing some motel furniture on feeling slighted, he gets a grip and whispers, “I’m sorry…sorry…” They reminisce about their first time together and how she put him on the spot later to describe the color of her eyes. (He couldn’t.) His focus may not be strong eye contact but some other area of sensibility would have been operant. Their last kiss is warm and unsentimentally melancholy. Jimmy leaves in the early morning and he’s accompanied by a song going, “And I walked a thousand miles… And I tried, oh yes, I tried…” On his arrival home he’s met by Hal and tells what he knows, neither from love nor hate; but from hoping that that emergent stranger might survive. His own emergent work-in-progress toward becoming a musician transcending the music industry peeks out at us at a moment within the surprise visit. Louise, caught up in the rescue service he provides, blurts out, “Jimmy, do you love me?” He takes a little while to reply and, when he does, he rasps out, “Yeah…” [implying that something else takes precedence; including something as small as the big old black dog we see for a second and a half while he speaks to her on the phone]. She quickly closes the matter with, “Never mind.” There had always been the T-Bird and there had always been a form of music. But shared magic had never come about.
You couldn’t call Thelma and Louise a comedy. You couldn’t call Thelma and Louise a crime movie. You couldn’t call it a romantic drama. You couldn’t call it a road movie. You couldn’t call it a feminist movie. And you couldn’t call it a panorama of modern American society. You could, however, call it a love story, featuring a form of love not amenable to journalistic labels. The Demy touches—even down to The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), with their singing out, “We aren’t going to rot in this place!”—carry our puzzling a little further, inasmuch as Scott has gone a little further. “Give Old Jimmy a kiss,” is his approach to good-bye.” But Old Jimmy from France is far from done, inasmuch as his Surrealist sallies (at their best) and their gentle wit hold out the promise of a less athletic, less rigorously musical breakaway being a component in good standing within the creative adventure of a new chivalry.A smile-inducing synthesis along these lines has been adumbrated at the Silver Bullet, where Austin rocker, Charlie Sexton’s rendition of “Tennessee Plates,” its lyrics roughly anticipating the chase the girls will ride out, becomes the push for some stompin’ line dancing, carrying, roughly, along with it the courtly dances of Camelot.