MOVIE REVIEWS : Smooth Ride for ‘Thelma & Louise’

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Huck and Jim, meet Thelma & Louise.

Ever since canny Mark Twain sent Mr. Finn and his older, shrewder companion adrift on that raft going down the Mississippi, letting go and heading out to those wide open spaces has been the classic American way of finding out who you were and what you were about. If you had a problem, you got yourself some transportation and you went. Anywhere. Though potentially dangerous, as the gang in “Easy Rider” discovered, this cultural rite could be undertaken at any age and from any station in life. But it has also been, in movie terms, pretty much an exclusively masculine preserve.

“Thelma & Louise” has changed all that. Forever. Provocative, poignant and heartbreakingly funny, this neo-feminist road movie is as pointed a look at what is timidly called the war between the sexes as we have had in quite some time. And it manages its success almost offhandedly, with a casual grace that makes everything look as easy as, well, falling off a raft.

At first glance, “Thelma & Louise” (citywide, rated R for strong language, violence and sensuality) does not seem a likely candidate to be this pleasingly subversive. Its writer never had a script produced before; its director made his reputation doing totally different kinds of movies; its stars, though more than able, are not the types who usually surprise us. If you were handicapping this film, you’d be hard-pressed to justify putting $2 on its chances.

But wait. In reality, writer Callie Khouri, whose last job was producing videos, has an exceptional ear and an enviable understanding of character. Her gritty, raunchy dialogue has the welcome tang of authenticity, and it is also achingly amusing as it delineates two characters so disparate they just about have to be best friends.

Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer may live in the same small Arkansas town, but their minds are planets apart. Louise (Susan Sarandon) is a waitress with tidy hair under a starched white cap. When she plans a weekend trip to the country with her good buddy, she makes sure to clean every last dish and leave her place immaculate. Thelma (Geena Davis), on the other hand, is a walking nervous breakdown, submissive to the point of catatonia, whose idea of packing is casually emptying an entire drawer into a waiting suitcase.

Besides relaxing, these women have another agenda for their trip: They want to make a point to the men in their lives about being taken for granted. Louise’s boyfriend, Jimmy, is a musician who travels a lot but never gets anywhere near commitment. And Thelma’s husband, Darryl, is a self-absorbed porker who has a personalized license plate reading “THE 1.” Thelma is so fearful of his rages that she doesn’t even ask if she can take the trip. She just gets into Louise’s Thunderbird convertible and hits the road.

Determined to have some fun, even if just for this weekend, Thelma convinces Louise to stop at a raunchy roadside honky-tonk. “I’ve had it up to my ass with sedate,” she announces after defiantly ordering some Wild Turkey. “You’re always telling me to let my hair down. Look out, darlin’, my hair is coming down.”

Suddenly, on the proverbial dime, something happens in that honky-tonk that changes the whole nature of Thelma and Louise’s trip, turning it from a jaunt to a nightmare, and one that keeps getting more and more frightening. These two women, who started out to escape their problems, suddenly find themselves in the worst trouble of their lives.

Saying this, however, is telling only a fraction of the story. Because disturbing as they are, Thelma and Louise’s experiences ultimately empower them, making them stronger, more forceful, more content. And as they move through a world of for the most part thoughtless, occasionally violent men, we all gain a realization not only of the different needs of the sexes, but also of how deeply society pigeonholes men and women, and what it takes to even attempt to get out.

But more than this, it is the great and paradoxical pleasure of “Thelma & Louise” that, except for a regrettable incident with a Neanderthal truck driver, it makes its points while scrupulously avoiding being preachy, managing to seamlessly blend political concerns with mainstream entertainment. No matter how audacious and occasionally surreal this film gets, it never loses touch with its audience or faith with its better instincts.

Though both Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon have had their share of memorable parts before, the intoxication and challenge they felt at being handed what may turn out to be the most satisfying women’s roles of the year is palpable and informs everything they do. And though it is Davis who makes the greatest impression by departing furthest from the kookie types she’s previously played, both actresses run through a gamut of emotions--from agony and hysteria to tears and laughter--that is formidable in its richness.

Running this particular show is, of all people, director Ridley Scott. A man whose reputation has been built on turning out high-gloss, hardware-heavy guy films like “Blade Runner” and “Alien,” Scott has readily admitted that he’s never done anything like this before. Though his English background means that “Thelma & Louise” is a little heavier than it might be on roadside grotesqueries of the American West, Scott makes up for this by not only having the panache to handle the characters’ action sequences, but also by maintaining just the right tone for their more intimate moments. He has also had the good sense to cast little-seen, understated actors such as Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald, Brad Pitt, Timothy Carhart and Harvey Keitel as the men in Thelma and Louise’s lives. Like almost everything else in this most surprising film, it works better than anyone had a right to expect.

‘Thelma & Louise’

Susan Sarandon: Louise

Geena Davis Thelma

Harvey Keitel: Hal

Michael Madsen: Jimmy

Christopher McDonald: Darryl

Stephen Tobolowsky: Max

Brad Pitt: J.D.

Timothy Carhart: Harlan

A Pathe Entertainment presentation of a Percy Main production, released by Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Director Ridley Scott. Producers Ridley Scott and Mimi Polk. Co-producers Dean O’Brien and Callie Khouri. Screenplay by Callie Khouri. Cinematographer Adrian Biddle, B.S.C. Editor Thom Noble. Costumes Elizabeth McBride. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Norris Spenser. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (strong language, violence, sensuality).

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