Thelma (Geena Davis), tall and sexy, is an Arkansas housewife somewhere in her 20s whose carpet-salesman husband — the only man she’s ever had — treats her like just another item to be stepped on. Louise (Susan Sarandon), about 10 years older, is a beautiful but hard-bitten coffee-shop waitress who can’t seem to get her musician boyfriend to settle down. Tough, sassy, and proud, with deep-dish Southern accents that seem to express their mutual, teasing hauteur, these two are best friends and soul sisters — down-home buddies openly covetous of any man they can count on. When they take off for a weekend joyride, we’re primed for a high-spirited screwball road comedy. Yet something else is afoot.

Right from its gratuitously gorgeous opening shot-a beckoning panorama of red-rock mesas Thelma & Louis lets you know that it’s going to be well, bigger than just another road movie. Directed by Ridley Scott, the master of high-tech lyricism whose films have ranged from the visionary (Blade Runner) to the eye-poppingly banal (Black Rain, Someone to Watch Over Me), Thelma & Louise wants to be the female-buddy movie to end all female-buddy movies. And maybe it is. At once extravagant and shallow, hilarious and glib, mythical and weirdly synthetic, this flamboyant saga of outlaw heroines on the run exerts a cracked fascination. You may not believe a moment of it, but by the time it’s over you know you’ve seen something.

Stopping at a roadside dance bar, Thelma and Louise meet a smiling charmer (Timothy Carhart) who gets Thelma drunk, takes her out to the parking lot, and then, when she refuses his advances, attempts to rape her. Louise shows up just in time, but even after she’s got her handgun pointed at the offender, he’s so arrogant — such a sneering pig — that, overcome with rage, she shoots him in the chest and kills him. There’s no pretense of self-defense: It’s a crime of pure passion. For a while, the movie bears an eerie similarity to the recent Mortal Thoughts. Both are victimization fables involving rape and (in spirit) justifiable homicide, and both, coincidentally, feature Harvey Keitel as a quasi-sympathetic police investigator. The first hour of Thelma & Louise is actually a little dull. Sarandon and Davis have to keep chewing over the script’s what-are-we-going-to-do-about-our-lousy-relationships clichés, and there’s an echo of Beth Henley’s Southern-fried preciousness in the way the actresses milk their accents. But if the movie begins realistically, it gradually shades off into the gonzo-poetic — and the more it does, the more fun it becomes.

With nowhere to turn, the two women hop in their T-bird convertible and head for Mexico, traveling across the flatlands of Oklahoma and on to the mountainous desert terrain of Arizona. What begins as a simple getaway metamorphoses into a barnstorming, hellbound odyssey — a joyous descent into criminality, liberation, and, finally, oblivion. As their journey progresses, Thelma and Louise encounter a variety of men. Some are seductive, like the hunky hayseed who shacks up with Thelma in a hotel room, and some are macho cretins, like the cop who pulls them over and, at gunpoint, turns into a crying wreck. Some, like the redneck trucker who keeps doing obscene things with his tongue, are plain disgusting. Yet they are all, one way or another, betrayers — the Enemy — and they leave the women with no choice but escape.

Here, as in many other American movies, the open highway becomes both an avenue to freedom and an existential road to nowhere. Working from a script by music-video producer Callie Khouri, Scott transforms what might have been a formulaic road movie into a feminist action fantasy rooted in the anarchic yearnings of the late ’60s and early ’70s. It’s as if he’d taken all the famous movies about two self-destructive outlaws — films like Easy Rider, Badlands, The Sugarland Express, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Zabriskie Point, even Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! — put them into a compacter, and given the whole package an up-to-the-minute, polyurethene gloss.

It’s when Thelma & Louise enters the realm of the fantastic that it attains a stylishly funny, overripe appeal.Thelma starts holding up convenience stores, and the two women begin to revel in their power as hot-mama criminals. At the same time, they know they’re going over the edge — and they don’t care. For once, Scott’s visual flair doesn’t feel extraneous. Working in a wide- screen format, he turns the Southwestern settings (much of the film was actually shot in Utah) into a spectacular sunbaked dreamscape, a kind of Grand Canyon of the soul. The effect is so seductive it’s druggy. We begin to share, kinesthetically, the women’s descent into self-styled craziness. The movie also comes alive as a comedy, especially when that leering trucker receives his comeuppance.

It would be easy to overpraise Thelma & Louise. The movie is a real concoction, and so it never quite connects with us emotionally. Still, the actresses take their roles as far as they can go. Sarandon gives Louise a burnished anger. And Davis, her kewpie-doll face held aloft by an amazingly elongated body, shows a new spontaneity. These two lend the film’s shamelessly operatic finale — a love-it-or-hate-it climax if ever there was one — a surreal conviction, even as part of you is thinking, ”Gimme a break!” B

Thelma & Louise
  • Movie
  • 129 minutes