Sustained relevance isn't always a good thing. "As meaningful in 2016 as it was in 1991" isn't an assuring praise to sing for an outlaw road movie featuring a pair of female friends whose crime spree is propelled by an essential certainty that the law will fail them. That a film which was viewed by many at the time as progressively and successfully dramatizing the female experience still feels progressive 25 years later suggests that that progressiveness did not equal progress.
Thelma and Louise start out as outlaws before any law has been broken. Housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) failing to get permission from her philandering husband to go on a fishing trip for the weekend is presented as a major transgression. That act of defiance is doubled-down on when Thelma, feeling free for the first time since she was 14 (when she began dating her husband), flirts back with the a man in a bar. When said man attempts to rape Thelma in the parking lot, Louise (Susan Sarandon) stops it with a gun to the back of his head. The attacker, unrepentant, gets shot dead.
From the get-go, Louise is aware the two have little recourse. The burden of proof is on them. "Just about 100 people saw you dancing cheek to cheek with him," Louise reminds Thelma at the first suggestion they go to the police. When the option is brought up again, Thelma reiterates: time has passed and physical remnant of the attack will be nearly nil. "The law is some tricky shit," Themla scoffs.
Misrepresented as a feel-good buddy road trip when it was released in 1991, Thelma & Louse – for which writer Callie Khouri won the Oscar that year – is not shy its purview. There aren't many – or, really, any – good men in the film. At the scene of the crime, the investigating detective (Harvey Keitel) casually flirts with the waitress who served Thelma and Louise. It's what might be called harmless flirting, but in the context, the movie has assured us that it's not safe to assume flirting is harmless. Keitel's detective goes on to be the one ally, or at least the one character who is sympathetic to the outlaws' situation, but he's still part of the system of power that's working against them. His flirtatious introduction, which includes just the right amount of subtle talking down to his female witness, is a reminder of that.
But to just say that Thelma & Louise is against men is to ignore that it's essentially for women. The two friends' run from a law they don't trust becomes inscreasingly a means of empowerment and a reclamation of power and angency. With the rise of independant film in the 90s, there was no shortage of projects that were interested in feminist ideas and ideals, but Thelma & Louise is one of the rare examples of mainstream entertainment offering a venue for those notions. Ridley Scott's lush, fun, exciting direction of Khouri's script, starring Davis and Sarandon (both of whom got Best Actress nominations at that year's Oscars) made for a real Trojan Horse of a moive.
But it's not as though Thelma & Louise ushered in a wave of blockbusters starring strong women that passed the Bechdel-Wallace test with flying colours. In fact, with an internet full of men as ready to threaten to kill a woman over social media as they are to cry out against how oppressed they are, it's hard to imagine Thelma & Louise getting made today.
For sure Thelma & Louise can and should be enjoyed on its own inherent merits. It's an unabashedly cool, great-looking movie helmed by two of the most iconic characters is contemporary film. But it can also be viewed as a reminder that progress is rarely final. For its time, it was revolutionary – activist Mary Lucey was quoted in Time as calling it "the first movie I've ever seen which told the downright truth" – and had a part in branding 1992 as the "Year of the Woman." In the Atlantic, Raina Lipsitz tallies the acheivements of the time: "Anita Hill stood up for herself at Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings, Callie Khouri won an Oscar, and... four women were simultaneously elected to the United States Senate." But how do things look today?
Let's save ourselves the tally. Things don't look good. The sheer fact that a man running for president can casually mention that women seeking abortion should be punished, or the consistent failure of our legal system to support women looking to stand up against crimes against them, or even the juvenile outrage over the casting of women in some silly movie about ghosts suggests that that "Year of the Woman" was containted, sadly, to a literal year. Viewed today, the essential drama of Thelma & Louise feels so releveant. And that's not a good thing.