Saturday, February 12, 2011

THELMA & LOUISE: Blu-ray (UA 1991) MGM/Fox Home Entertainment

As a passive movie goer and not a film critic, I for one have never been able to wrap my head around that championed feminist zeitgeist that celebrates Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise (1991) as a life-affirming, woman identifying triumph of the female spirit. For one, Callie Khouri's screenplay is the story of two tragically flawed women in crisis. Louise Elizabeth Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) is a closeted, traumatized victim of rape who allows her pent up rage to cause her to commit the act of murder. On the other hand, Thelma Yvonne Dickinson (Geena Davis) is a put upon frump who, given an ounce of encouragement, transgresses into a clueless - if playful - nymph with outrageously bad taste in picking male suitors.

Yet, I can recall so well how feminist literature and film critiques from that period touted Thelma & Louise as nothing short of a break with patriarchal tradition. The film's buddy/buddy formula usually ascribed to male movie heroes had, so we were led to believe, been successfully transplanted into a pair of 'assertive' gals who take charge of their own lives by seizing opportunities as they come their way.

Curiously, such critiques tended to completely eschew the fact that in order to survive their weekend retreat Thelma and Louise had to first kill for the right to leave their men folk behind, then had to flee the authorities, turn to a life of crime to sustain their fugitive existence, and finally, assume the atypical masculine traits of 'butching up' in order to come to terms with what they had done by taking their own lives. So much for the female identifying heroine of the 1990's!

Today, removed from all this needless propaganda, I appreciate Thelma & Louise much more than I did at the time of its general release. Adrian Biddle's lush cinematography, his stark and memorable compositions gives an elegant visual patina to the story. Director Scott makes the most of Khouri's screenplay which moves like gangbusters almost from the word 'go', developing along the lines of a Frank Capra-esque road trip that suddenly turns 'Citizen Kane' moral dilemma.

While I cannot abide the depiction of the screenplay's male characters - frankly, they're all variations on the Neanderthal/idiot - both Thelma and Louise are rather engaging counterparts that play exceptionally well off each other: like a vigilante Abbott and Costello but (as Preston Sturges might have said) "with a little sex thrown in." Thelma & Louise is great entertainment - just not for the reasons readily ascribed to it.

We begin in earnest with Louise, a sassy waitress toiling at an Arkansas greasy spoon, telephoning Thelma on her break and instructing her to be ready for their weekend retreat. Thelma's husband, the ever-bumbling Darryl (Christopher McDonald) is a possessive oaf who it seems aspires to be that sort of gold chained stud muffin relic cast out from some forgotten '70's discotheque. This is precisely why Thelma waits to start her packing until after Darryl has left for work.

Louise arrives at Thelma's - as is in keeping with her no-nonsense mantra - on time, and the two make haste for the open road in Louise's teal 1966 Thunderbird convertible. However, what starts out as an orchestrated plan for a relaxed fishing trip quickly degenerates into a nightmarish saga that spins wildly out of control with one bad decision: a pit stop at The Silver Bullet - a cowboy bar and dance hall that caters to some fairly rough hewn characters.

At her first taste of freedom, Thelma meets Harlan Puckett (Timothy Carhart) - a spurious player who quickly gets her drunk, then attempts to rape her in the parking lot. Louise intervenes at the point of a gun, informing Harlan that when a woman is barely conscious and crying "she isn't having any fun!" At this point, the women can simply walk away and take the high road. But Harlan's absolute lack of acknowledgement that he's done anything wrong infuriates Louise and after a brief exchange of profanities she kills him in cold blood.

In a moment of panic, Louise reasons to run away from the scene of the crime rather than claim self defence. She decides that their new plan of escape will lead to Mexico. However, despite the fact that the quickest route would be through Texas, Louise instead opts to drive around to Arizona. Later, we learn that Louise was brutally attacked in Texas ten years earlier, leaving her emotionally scarred.

In the meantime, Police Det. Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) arrives on the scene. He is informed by one of the Silver Bullet waitresses that two women were seen leaving the bar with Harlan shortly before his demise and this sets the wheels of his investigation in motion. Slocumb eventually identifies Thelma as one of his persons of interest and sets up a communication outpost at Darryl's home - much to his chagrin and amazed confusion.

Hiding out at a dive motel along the highway, the brevity of Louise's actions begins to sink in. Not only are they fugitives from justice, but they don't have nearly enough money to sustain their trek across the southwest. Relying on the loyalty of her boyfriend, Jimmy Lennox (Michael Madsen), Louise asks that he withdraw and send her entire life savings via Western Union.

On their road trip, Thelma begs Louise to pick up J.D. (Brad Pitt) - a roughish hitchhiker with a playful penchant for seduction. J.D. is a profession con artist, a character trait that Louise never falls for. Unfortunately, Thelma has developed a cougarish attraction toward J.D. At the motel where Louise is supposed to pick up her wire transfer, she instead discovers that Jimmy has come in person with the money but also with a wealth of curiosity and questions that need to be answered.

Louise places the money in Thelma's care - an idiotic move considering Thelma's scatterbrained nature - while she and Jimmy go off to talk. An errant rainstorm provides J.D. with a flimsy excuse to beg Thelma's indulgences. She lets him into her room and the two share a lustful detente whereupon J.D. reveals that he has hiked his way across America by holding up gas stations and liquor stores. This revelation doesn't seem to unnerve Thelma, but the following morning as she meets Louise for coffee in the motel's restaurant, J.D. makes off with their entire bankroll, sending Louise to the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Unable to justify her actions, Thelma takes matters into her own hands, using the stick-up approach taught to her by J.D. the night before to rob an out of the way convenience store. Incriminated by the store's surveillance camera, Slocumb and the FBI close in on J.D. and Jimmy - piecing the events told by each man together to unravel where Thelma and Louise are now headed.

Slocumb unravels the mystery of Louise's Texas assault and becomes sympathetic to her plight. But not even he can get through to convince the duo to turn themselves in. During the final length of their journey, Thelma and Louise encounter an over-the-hill trucker (Marco St. John) hauling petrol, who makes obscene gestures. The women decide to pull over at a remote and abandoned truck stop. Believing he is about to have his sexual fantasies fulfilled, the trucker learns too late that Thelma and Louise are out to teach him a lesson instead. They shoot up his tires and then his truck, causing a titanic explosion that attracts the interests of an Arizona State Trooper (Jason Beghe). By now, both Thelma and Louise have crossed over in their mindset from scared fleeing criminals to feminist moralizing vigilantes.

After pulling the women over, the trooper takes Louise's license to input into the system. He is thwarted in his duties by Thelma, who aims her gun at the trooper's head before forcing him into the trunk of his patrol car. Louise shoots out the radio and the tires before making haste toward the Grand Canyon's Dead Horse Point near the Colorado River. Regrettably, Louise discovers that they are perched high atop a dangerous precipice with no chance of escape.

Time and the FBI have caught up to their spree. Det. Slocumb begs the FBI's indulgence to negotiate with Louise for their surrender. But Thelma, who has exhibited the most emotional growth since the beginning of the story, tells Louise to keep going. The film ends in a cloud of dust as Louise drives her Thunderbird over the side of Dead Horse Point.

Originally, Ridley Scott had envisioned a rather drawn out standoff between the women and the FBI, culminating in a majestic helicopter shot that follows the Thunderbird over the side of the cliff, through its almost bird-like plummet and onto its inevitable demise in slow motion. This alternate ending is seen as part of the Blu-Ray's extra features, but in the film the sequence ends with the car flying off the edge of the cliff - appearing almost airborne as the screen fades to white and then a montage of images from the start of Thelma and Louise's road trip under the end title credits.

This decision to 'crop' the ending of his film actually met with some grumblings from the New York film critics who felt that the denouement did not live up to the 128 min. build up preceding it. Seen today, I must concur with that assessment. The film does end rather abruptly and without the fanfare that the alternate ending seems to have. In his defence, director Scott has always argued that his decision to fade out before the car began its descent into the canyon was predicated on ending the action of the story on a high note. As it stands, Thelma and Louise leave the screen airborne and escaping their inevitable incarceration as renegade angels in flight instead of dropping like a pair of stones to their gruesome bone-crushing deaths.

Casting the film became something of minor quandary after Annie Potts, Holly Hunter, Michelle Pfeiffer, Frances McDormand, Sela Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Meg Ryan all turned down the role of Louise who - in the script - was described as a younger woman. Even after it was agreed between Ridley Scott and Callie Khouri that the character of Louise ought to be played by a more established star, casting the likes of Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Sigourney Weaver, Sissy Spacek, Angelica Huston - and even Tina Turner! - proved elusive.

Today, it's hard to imagine any of these stars delivering a more finely wrought performance than Susan Sarandon. The emotional depth Sarandon provides Louise really makes the character click, particularly as the sturdy rock counterpart that perfectly plays off Geena Davis' multi-layered, and ultimately, more flashy turn as the flighty Thelma.

As already stated, the male characters in the film are all variations on the lumbering bo-hunk; the best of these being Harvey Keitel and, to a lesser degree, Michael Madsen. Neither is an exemplar in performance, but at least each escapes the more caricatured 'butch male' nuances of Christopher McDonald and Brad Pitt. In hindsight it's interesting to note that Pitt's performance became a major springboard for launching his super stardom. The case must therefore almost exclusively rest on the popularity of Pitt's then 'pretty boy' looks because his acting herein is quite atrocious.

In the final analysis, Thelma & Louise is interesting to watch. It's not high art, but then again, so few films of the past thirty years are. Nevertheless, there's more than a hint of substance to all the stylish film making exhibited throughout. It will be interesting, however, to see if future feminist literature on film continues to embrace the characters as heroic and trailblazing, rather than knock offs of their traditional male counterparts from other buddy/buddy movies.

Fox/MGM Home Video mark the 20th Anniversary of Thelma & Louise with a stunning new Blu-ray transfer. Truly, there is nothing to complain about herein. Colours are robust, bright and very vivid without appearing to have been artificially enhanced for this presentation. Contrast levels are perfectly realized. Fine detail takes a quantum leap forward with even the most minute craggy formation of rock in the background appearing incredibly sharp and life like. Flesh tones have been nicely rendered. There appears to have been very little DNR applied for an image that is appropriately grainy at times. Grain structure has been lovingly reproduced as grain, not digital grit. This is a fine visual presentation.

The audio is a 7.1 repurposing that is bold and bombastic where it needs to be. This is great audio track and one that belies the fact that the film's folio is 20 years old. Extras are all direct imports from MGM's deluxe collector's edition DVD. They include audio commentaries and an extensive documentary - chopped up into six parts - on the making of the film. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO

4.5

EXTRAS

3

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