Thelma & Louise alternate ending: why it would have ruined the film.

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Feb. 15 2011 11:11 AM

Thelma & Louise

Why the alternate ending would have ruined the film.

Thelma and Louise. Click image to expand.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Thelma & Louise

I remember seeing Thelma & Louise—just reissued by MGM in a 20th-anniversary Blu-Ray edition —with my mother upon its release in 1991. I must have been home on break from graduate school. I know we enjoyed it, though we stopped somewhere short of full-on love. And of course we argued about the ending, though I can't remember who took what side. What I do recall is that in 1991, Thelma & Louise was a movie you had to see; for months after its release that summer, the film was the subject of op-ed-page debates and chat-show controversy. Like Do The Right Thing in 1989 or Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004, Ridley Scott's two-girls-on-the-run road movie was 1991's de rigueur conversation piece.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Two decades later, Thelma & Louise persists in the popular imagination as an epochal and groundbreaking film, one for which there is a "before" and an "after." No roundup of movies about female empowerment (empowerment! How's that for a hit of 90s nostalgia?) would be complete without it. But has Thelma & Louise lasted as anything more than a feminist benchmark? Is it a feminist benchmark? And is it any good?

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One thing I can attest upon re-watching is that Thelma & Louise is still loads of fun. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are vibrant and funny and gorgeous as the Arkansas housewife and waitress whose weekend getaway turns into an interstate crime spree. Brad Pitt, as the sexy hitchhiker who seduces and then robs the gullible Thelma (Davis), still occasions a sharp intake of breath and a who the hell is that? Louise's green 1966 Thunderbird convertible looks fantastic against the bright red rock formations of the Southwestern desert, especially in the saturated Blu-Ray format.

And there are many satisfying details that I don't remember having noticed the first time around: Louise's heartbreakingly stonefaced reaction to the engagement ring her boyfriend, Jimmy, (an unexpectedly gentle Michael Madsen) gives her at the hotel in Oklahoma City. The way the two women's wardrobes morph and overlap throughout the film, until by the end Louise is wearing a neckerchief repurposed from the torn-off sleeves of Thelma's shirt. Hans Zimmer's slide-guitar opening theme, which somehow evokes both the wide-open Southwestern landscape and a sense of looming claustrophobic menace. As a piece of high Hollywood craftsmanship—a machine for eliciting real emotions from unreal circumstances—Thelma & Louise is just about flawless.

But Thelma & Louise also looks profoundly weird now in ways it didn't in 1991. This isn't a criticism, exactly, but what most struck me most upon re-watching was the extent to which Thelma & Louise now reads as a document of another, long-lost time. The common criticism upon its release that the male characters were clownish, one-dimensional villains isn't entirely false—though the Madsen character is one obvious exception, and other men in the film, including Pitt's hitchhiker and Harvey Keitel's Arkansas cop, come across as likeable if not complex. But seeing the movie now, you're keenly aware how irrelevant that complaint about the movie was. Calling for a more emotionally layered portrait of Thelma's boorish husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald) would be like putting the white cops in a blaxploitation movie through racial-sensitivity training. Thelma & Louise isn't a realistic drama about the state of male-female relations in Arkansas in 1991. It's a fiercely funny pop manifesto, less a political than a cinematic one.

So much of the pleasure during the course of this vigilante fantasy comes from the movies we're always aware we're not watching: Not Bonnie and Clyde, not Gun Crazy, not Badlands, not any of the countless road movies in which two heterosexual outlaws go down together in a blaze of romantic glory. Thelma & Louise knowingly combines the nihilist energy of that genre with the feel-good glow of then-emerging Oprah culture. It makes us believe in its heroines' poor decision-making process as a blow for personal liberation.