"Thelma and Louise"

Ridley Scott is so tone-deaf that he misses what's great about his own feminist buddy flick.

Published June 21, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

"Thelma and Louise"
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, Harvey Keitel, Brad Pitt
MGM Home Entertainment; anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Director's commentary and alternate ending

Actors are important, really. So's the script. That's what Ridley Scott tells us in his commentary track on "Thelma and Louise" when he's not waxing on and on about the technical details of the film. Much of Scott's commentary makes you wonder whether this guy has anything interesting to say about his movie. Then there are moments that make you uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.

"Thelma and Louise" tells the story of two women just trying to get out of town for the weekend. Spurred on by a vigilante reaction to a terrible crime, the duo ends up screaming across the country in a convertible, running into or away from good guys like Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) who's the only man in the movie who really understands Thelma and Louise's plight or the chorus of bad ones like J.D. (Brad Pitt) who steals all their money. When the film was released in 1991 it caused a minor sensation, particularly with a female audience that finally found an outlaw story that gave them a feminist script to cheer for. (The script won the Oscar that year.)

It still works as a little cherry bomb in the ongoing gender wars, but its cultural cachet is mostly overlooked by Scott, who prefers talking about the beauty of his shots than about the character and thematic dynamics that make the film so engaging. Early in the film Scott muses about the importance of actors: Good ones let him concentrate on the more technical aspects of filmmaking, like lighting and composition. But the on-screen sequence that accompanies his little treatise is the harshest, most disconcerting part of the film. It's so jarring to experience something so tone-deaf that you have to watch it again. Eventually you realize that this isn't an anomaly: Scott never really gets close to talking about Thelma and Louise's relationship. "I felt that I was being pigeonholed and needed to do a film about people," he offers by way of explanation.

Maybe that's expecting too much from Scott, who is a terrific action director but falters at anything short of opera. We knew that coming in -- what do you expect from the director of "Blade Runner" and "Alien"? A subtle character study? This is a brash mixture of buddy film and Robin Hood western, except this time the protagonists are female outlaws. Scott makes it clear that screenwriter Callie Khouri is to thank for the characters and themes. He even credits her with teaching him what it means to be a woman. The rest of the commentary, of course, is Scott being a man, alternating between his approach to filmmaking and the minutiae of the character transitions. The character stuff is boring: If you don't pick up on what the characters are doing by watching the film then you might not want to watch most Hollywood movies. The technical stuff is passably interesting, but listening to Scott describe how important storyboards are to him doesn't really add to an appreciation of the film.

There are lighthearted moments that also suffer from Scott's tone-deafness. As Thelma and Louise near the end of their journey he tells us, "You get a funny feeling that you're getting to the last leg now. It's beginning to get a bit philosophical." And later, he channels Marlon Brando on "Larry King" as he gives us his secrets for keeping cool in the Utah heat. Maybe there really isn't much more to say about the movie because it's already up there on the screen. Scott even tells us that he got paranoid that the film would turn out bad because it was so easy to make. Maybe "Thelma and Louise" is so perfectly simple that it doesn't need any further explanation from its creator.

By Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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