In this week’s episode, the team drives right up to the edge with the 1991 Society movie Thelma and Louise, Oscar-winning screenplay by Callie Khouri, directed by Ridley Scott. Share your thoughts on our analysis or ask questions on Twitter @StoryGridRT.
You can find the Foolscap Global Story Grid here (sheet 7).
Here’s a synopsis adapted from Wikipedia:
Best friends Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) and Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) set out for a weekend vacation at a fishing cabin in the mountains to take a break from their dreary lives in Arkansas. Thelma, a ditzy housewife, is married to a disrespectful and controlling man, Darryl (Christopher McDonald with an awful porn ’stache), while sharp-tongued Louise works as a waitress in a diner and has an on-off relationship with musician Jimmy (Michael Madsen), who spends most of his time on the road.
On the way to the cabin, they stop for a drink at a bar where Thelma meets and dances with a flirtatious stranger, Harlan. When he takes her outside to the parking lot to get some fresh air, he starts kissing her and taking her clothes off without her consent. Thelma resists, but Harlan hits her, and then starts raping her. Louise finds them and threatens to shoot Harlan with the gun that Thelma brought with her. Harlan stops, but as the women walk away, he insults them and yells that he should have continued the rape. Enraged, Louise responds by shooting him, and the pair flee the scene.
Thelma wants to go to the police, but Louise fears no one will believe Thelma’s claim of attempted rape and they will be charged with murder. They go on the run, but Louise demands they travel from Oklahoma to Mexico without going through Texas. Heading west, the women come across an attractive young drifter, J.D. (Brad Pitt. This film launched his career), whom Thelma quickly falls for. Louise contacts Jimmy and asks him to wire transfer her life savings to her. When she goes to pick up the money, she finds that Jimmy has come to deliver the money in person. Jimmy proposes to Louise, but she refuses. Meanwhile, Thelma invites J.D. to her room, and they sleep together. She learns he is a thief who has broken parole.
The following morning, they discover J.D. has stolen Louise’s life savings and fled. Louise is distraught, so a guilty Thelma takes charge and later robs a nearby convenience store.
Meanwhile, the FBI is getting closer to catching them. Arkansas State Police Investigator Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) leads the investigation and questions both J.D. and Jimmy, and taps Darryl’s home phone. Slocumb learns that Louise had been raped years earlier in Texas.
Thelma tells Louise she can’t go back to Darryl, but she understands if Louise wants to return to Jimmy. Louise promises they will keep going together.
Thelma and Louise are finally cornered by the authorities a hundred yards from the edge of the Grand Canyon. Rather than be captured and go to prison, Thelma proposes that they “keep going.” They kiss, then Louise steps on the accelerator, and they ride the car over the cliff to their deaths.
The Six Core Questions
1. What’s the Global Genre? Society > Women’s
The global genre for Thelma and Louise is the external genre: Society > Women’s. The Global Value is Power/Impotence. The range of value is Power to Vulnerability to Impotence to Impotence Masked as Power. Society stories are about power and impotence, particularly the relative power of groups within society.
A question arose about the term for this sub-genre and whether it could be strengthened and made more inclusive. Society stories could involve groups that are similarly situated, but not defined by the gender. We discussed a few possibilities, including Subjugated or Subjugated Individual, Minority or Non-Majority, Disempowered Group, Protected Class, and Underrepresented. Thinking about why a sub-genre exists and is labeled a particular way could tell us something about the stories that arise within it.
There is a strong Action > Duel > Hunted subplot beneath the Society story.
Our best guess for the internal genre is Status > Pathetic for Thelma (naive protagonist with weak will and undergoes misfortune causes our short-term hopes to be ultimately disappointed and long-term fears to be realized) and Status > Tragic for Louise (sympathetic protagonist with strength of will and some sophistication suffers misfortune in part as the result of a serious mistake or error in judgment). The Status “vibe” seems to be emphasized at different points in the story, for example when Hal Slocumb says, “Brains’ll only get you so far, and luck always runs out.”
- An argument could be made that the story meets the conventions for the Status genre:
- Mentor: Thelma and Louise seem to serve as mentors for each other, and Harvey Keitel’s character is at times too.
- Big social problem: men are free to rape women without justice or consequence—except outside the law.
- Shapeshifters as hypocrites: J.D. is a charming thief pretending to be a student needing a ride back to school. He tells the police that Thelma and Louise are headed for Mexico.
- A clear point of no return/truth will out: They face an army and decide “let’s not get caught.”
- Ironic win-but-lose ending: They die, but they are free–by their own autonomous choice.
2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?
An Inciting Threat to Reigning Power:
- Thelma goes on the trip with Louise without asking her husband’s permission (or even telling him that she’s planning to go).
- Louise: Harlan attempts to rape Thelma. Harlan has the power and Louise threatens it by speaking out for women (“In future, when a woman is crying like that, she isn’t having any fun.”)
Protagonists deny responsibility to respond:
- Thelma doesn’t ask Darryl if she can go on the trip. She tries twice, but his attitude stops her cold. When she challenges his authority (by asking why people are so interested in buying carpet on a Friday night), he belittles her by reminding her that he has the power (he’s the regional manager, but also the breadwinner).
- Louise: This one is trickier, because I think she accepts the responsibility to respond to her inciting incident (Harlan’s attempted rape of Thelma). She steps in right away to save her friend and although threatens Harlan, doesn’t have any intention of shooting. Instead she walks away. It’s only when Harlan baits her further that she shoots.
Forced to respond, the protagonists lash out according to their positions in the power hierarchy: Thelma and Louise are at the very bottom of the hierarchy, and they lash out (at those wielding power) in a progressively more complicated way.
- She goes on the trip without asking Darryl’s permission because she knows he would never let her go anyway (note she is so repressed at the beginning, she won’t even eat the whole chocolate bar, and she pretends to smoke).
- She wants to stop at the Silver Bullet country bar (“Is this my vacation or isn’t it? … I’ve had it up to my ass with being sedate. You said you and me was gonna get out of town and for once just really let our hair down. Well darlin’ look out, because my hair is coming down.”), commits armed robbery,
- She puts a state trooper in the trunk.
- She uggests they commit suicide as a way to be free.
- Lashes out against her boyfriend Jimmy. Before the film began, they’d had an argument. Louise has left town without telling Jimmy because she knows that when he comes back into town and she’s not there, she’ll have gained a little more power in their relationship (“Jimmy’ll come in off the road and freak out when you’re not there and will call you like 100,000 times. Sunday night you’ll call him back and by Monday, he’ll be kissing the ground you walk on.” “Exactly.”). Thelma knows this too and is, in fact, the character who articulates it. NOTE: Although she agrees to dance and have fun at the bar, she doesn’t lash out to the extent Thelma does.
- Louise shoots Harlan. She’s a rape victim herself (revealed slowly over the course of the film starting with her opening remark when they enter the Silver Bullet “I haven’t seen a place like this since I left Texas”).
- Louise refuses to call the police because she understands that they’re powerless.
Each character learns what his other Antagonist’s object of desire is:
- Thelma: Darryl (to control her – never lets her leave the house), Harlen (to have sex with her, whether she wants it or not), J.D. (to steal her money)
- Both: Detective Hal Slocumb (he wants to question them, to help them. Hal knows about the robbery and that they’re going to Mexico), Truck driver (sex)
Protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver Antagonist fails:
When Thelma suggests they call the police, Louise refuses. Getting coffee a short time later, Louise says that no one saw them so they’re fine and just have to figure out what to do. However, the police have already been notified and Det Hal Slocumb is questioning the waitress about them. Louise’s first official strategy to outmaneuver the Antagonist (police – Det Hal Slocumb) is her decision to go to Mexico – this comprises the main build of the film and it too ultimately fails.
Protagonist, realizing he or she must change their approach to turn the power tables, reaches and All Is Lost moment:
- Louise: All is Lost When she learns that the police know about their plan to go to Mexico. “We’re fugitives now, we’ve got to start acting like it.”
- Thelma: All is Lost is when Louise can no longer lead them (her meltdown after losing the money). Thelma realizes that she has to change her approach – she can no longer be the naive follower, she has to be the leader now. The strategizer. This is a power shift even within the thelma/louise dynamic. As strategizer, Thelma gets them money by committing armed robbery.
The Revolution Scene: This is the Core Event of the Society Story, which happens when the protagonists’ gifts are expressed and power changes hands:
This is the last scene of the film. Thelma and Louise only really have power when they decide to drive off the cliff. It’s only then that the have complete control over their lives and destiny.
The Protagonists are rewarded on at least one level of satisfaction (extra-personal, interpersonal or intrapersonal):
Thelma and Louise reach satisfaction primarily on the intrapersonal level, although a slight case can be made for the interpersonal and extra-personal as well.
Extra-personal (what will the world think of me?):
Thelma and Louise will always be criminals. However, they don’t care what anyone thinks of them, and they have finally found their power.
Interpersonal (what will a particular person think of me?):
The waitress at the Silver Bullet, as well as the two old ladies in the window (who observe Louise in the car while Thelma is robbing the market) would probably see Thelma and Louise and heroes of a sort. The waitress is in their corner completely. She defends them and says Harlan had it coming to him – whomever did it. The old ladies look at Louise in a knowing way. Although this is entirely my interpretation … but it seems like these women sympathize. They’ve been there (i.e. powerless). Det Hal Slocumb also sees them as victims at first – he’s trying to help them and holds off charging them with murder. Even in the end he wants to be there to keep the situation from escalating.
Intrapersonal (what will I think of me?):
This is definitely their biggest reward. They’re finally free. Although it takes the full film for them to achieve this level of satisfaction. They won’t get caught. They have overcome their inner conflict at last and have made a decision about their future. They’re in control of their lives, if only for a few minutes (and to end it).
Leslie: Perhaps Louise denies responsibility by not going to the police, which could have kept Thelma stay out of trouble—at least with the police.
One central character with offshoot characters that embody a multitude of that main character’s personality traits: This was a close call (and I waffled a bit), but I see Thelma as the central character (she changes the most). Every character in the film represents a position on the power divide between men and women from Thelma’s and Louise’s romantic partners, to the truck drivers, police, and federal agents. Hal Slocumb is sympathetic to their plight, but only Harlan’s sister is cheering them on.
Big canvas (internal landscape or external setting): Big external setting [like a Western] with Thelma and Louise driving across several states, but also the internal landscape. If exposing tyrants won’t work, what conditions can those who are underrepresented live with? They wrestle with this inner conflict until the end when they decide they can’t go back.
A clear revolutionary point of no return moment (This is the moment when the power shifts). Louise shoots Harlan after he attempts to rape Thelma; Thelma commits armed robbery in Oklahoma after JD steals the money they need to get to Mexico.
The vanquished are doomed to exile. The power structure won’t forgive their revolt, and having tasted freedom, Thelma and Louise can’t go back to utter powerlessness.
The power divide between those in power and those disenfranchised is large. Harlan won’t stop raping Thelma, until Louise pulls a gun on him. Darryl, Jimmy, JD, truck drivers, the police officers, each have power over Thelma and Louise in one way or another. The FBI sends an “army” to take down “those girls” in the final scene: dozens of patrol cars, police with machine guns, and a helicopter. Over a megaphone, one officer says, “Place your hands in plain view. Any failure to obey that command will be considered an act of aggression against us.” Read: If you don’t do what you’re told, ladies, we consider that an act of aggression, and we’ll kill you. This is not to say that people should prefer this method of solving their problems, but this sometimes happens when underrepresented people don’t have access to legitimate opportunities for justice.
Ironic win-but-lose or lose-but-win ending. Thelma and Louise don’t want to be taken alive and subject to men and what they consider justice.
Leslie: Interesting to note that this is Ridley Scott, who brought us Alien, another film with interesting gender roles.
Valerie: Note (further to the power divide being huge), the other disenfranchised character (the black guy on the bicycle) refuses to help police. That’s a little scene that also turns on power/impotence
3. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device?
Selective omniscient third person, mostly (almost literally) driving right alongside Thelma and Louise, but also able to show us scenes where one or both of them are absent, such as scenes with the local police detective and Thelma’s husband.
4. What are the Objects of Desire, in other words, wants and needs?
Wants: Society turns on power and impotence. The protagonists want personal freedom to get away from the controlling men in their lives.
Needs: If the internal genre is Status, then Thelma and Louise need to stay true to their values.
5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?
The controlling idea/theme of Society stories is either “We gain power when we expose the hypocrisy of tyrants” or “Tyrants beat back revolutions by coopting the leaders of the underclass.” In this case, both the positive and negative themes are present. Anne worked with these and came up with:
“Victims gain power when they take strong action against their victimizers, but when the victimizers belong to an entrenched system, victory will be fleeting and internal.”
“Tyranny wins over rebellion but only at the cost of sacrificing society’s most vibrant individuals.”
As Louise says, “You get what you settle for.” BUT when you’re up against a massive entrenched system, you won’t get what you want, either.”
The hypocrisy of tyrants is exposed not deliberately but incidentally by Thelma and Louise as the tyrants prove over and over and over again what hypocrites they are: weak men parading strength through violence, theft, and coercion over women. The one sympathetic man, played by Harvey Keitel, is similarly overruled by the weak FBI agent parading massive overkill power to shore up his own federal tyranny over local law enforcement.
The murder of Thelma’s rapist is an act that’s personally revolutionary for Louise—she avenges her own rape and takes charge of the patriarchy in that moment. But the instant she pulls the trigger, she’s doomed by a system that is so much bigger than her rage, and so entrenched that she never stands a chance. Instead, she decides to go down on her own terms in one of the greatest ironic win-but-lose, lose-but-win endings I’ve ever seen.
What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?
Beginning Hook: Thelma and Louise set out on a two-day trip to the mountains, but when Louise kills a man attempting to rape Thelma, the two decide to make a run for Mexico
Middle Build: They make their way to Oklahoma City to pick up money, which JD steals. Louise loses her grip, and Thelma takes the lead, robbing a store for cash. The detectives catch up with JD and learn that Thelma and Louise are headed to Mexico—both commit to not making any deals and keep going.
Ending Payoff: They get pulled over for speeding, and Thelma rescues Louise, crossing over to what she calls her true calling as a criminal. After their epic pay back on the nasty trucker, the cops catch up to them and it’s a standoff at the Grand Canyon. Rather than surrender, they hold hands and drive off the cliff to freedom.
Any additional comments?
Valerie: It’s curious that Thelma and Louise pick up JD. They’re running from the police because Louise has murdered the man who tried to rape Thelma. Yet, Thelma is begging Louise to pick up the “handsome” hitchhiker? Wouldn’t sex be the last thing on her mind? Wouldn’t Louise be completely focussed on getting to Mexico? Unless this is proof that they think they’ve gotten away with murder? The scene prior they were smiling and singing in the car – free, but not free.
Anne: JD is respectful, and says, “Miss Louise, Miss Thelma, ma’am,” etc.
7. Additional Story-Related Observations
- Susan Sarandon plays great characters with strong personalities. Like in Bull Durham, Dead Man Walking.
- They also did what looked like the first selfie with a Polaroid.
- Geena Davis as well like in A League of Their Own, which came out after this.
- The secret that Louise is hiding is a good way to build tension. You get an idea that she was raped in Texas, but that is not confirmed until later. It’s a good way to finally uncover why she was so angry at Harlin that she killed him after he released Thelma.
- This film reminds me of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once we’re past the rape scene, including the end. That’s what could push it into an Action > Hunted genre if it were not for Louise’s clear and specific declaration “No one will believe you that you did not want it from him. You were dancing all night together. They’ll say you were asking for it.” Such a powerful Society > Women’s statement. It’s, in my view, the central theme of the story and relevant even today.
- Harvey Keitel’s portrayal of a nice detective is amazing considering he starts to play some dark people later on in Reservoir Dogs (1992), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and Pulp Fiction (1992). The way he is written is also a great example of a helper to the hero. He has to do his job but he understands the situation.
- Agree with the Butch and Sundance comparison. Talk about going out with guns blazing! There’s no topping that freeze-frame ending, whether of Butch and Sundance about to be riddled with bullets, or the Thunderbird flying out over the Grand Canyon. BUT, I note that Billy Elliot, the movie we studied in Episode 1, had a similarly glorious freeze-frame ending—a happy one. We don’t really imagine that Butch and Sundance or Thelma and Louise survive, and we don’t really doubt that Billy Elliot’s future is assured, but boy does the story ring and ring in your mind when it ends on a high like that, one breath before the resolution. And it’s not just a cinematic technique, either. I’ve read at least one novel, a love and war story called The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller that ends that way, and it’s a brilliant trick if you can carry it off.
- I’d never seen this movie before, believe it or not, and I was forcibly struck by how much more relevant and current it seems today than it would have been to me as a woman already in my mid-30s when the movie first came out. I could wish it had felt LESS relevant and powerful. It’s a rare instance of a great movie that has aged well for terrible reasons. Ironic, to say the least.
- An ending that is both surprising yet inevitable. Their choice to go over the cliff is certainly a surprise, but given what the characters want and need, it’s inevitable. (Thelma wants to be free [from her husband and boring life], Louise: wants to be free from the law and men [she doesn’t accept Jimmy’s proposal]. That is, they want power/control of their lives/destiny.)
- Setup and payoff with the trucker was epic.
- This article by Megan Garber in The Atlantic (2016) talks about how the film has held up a little too well after twenty-five years.
Next week we’ll tackle the Morality > Redemption story in The Muppet Christmas Carol.