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Three Routes Through Thelma & Louise

How the West Was Won

How the West Was Won

Falling looks a lot like flying until you hit the ground—something that Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) famously never do. After breaking so many other laws, finally they break the laws of physics. They clasp hands. Boot hits pedal hits floor. And, trailing storm clouds of dust, living up to its name, their aquamarine 1966 Thunderbird takes flight over a cliff edge, only to halt midair. Thelma’s tatty T-shirt bears the slogan “Drivin’ my life away,” but it’s only journey’s end if they die, an inevitability that this genre-bending movie makes cinematically uncertain. American poet Jack Gilbert once wrote, “Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.” Here, the end never comes; a concluding freeze-frame—at once cathartic and gloriously cornball—lets the triumph go on and on.

Thelma & Louise: from another angle, that ampersand could be an infinity symbol.

Ridley Scott’s 1991 hit, written “like the whole thing came at once” by debut screenwriter Callie Khouri, is many things. It’s an unapologetically feminist fuck-you, smuggled into a cops-and-criminals chase. It’s a feminine reworking of the usually masc on-screen buddy dynamic and a lovers-on-the-run tale where the romance is passionately platonic. It’s a comedy and a tragedy. It’s a rape-revenge drama, a journey of self-discovery, and a road movie that runs out of road. But by the time of its emblematic last shot, it is more than anything a western, and not just because of its (frequently overstated) homage to the finale of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Thelma & Louise is a western because it is preoccupied with justice and liberty and self-determination. It’s a western because only that genre is elastic enough to encompass all those other genres. It’s a western because there is no other category of American movie that can absorb a feminist-buddy-outlaw-chase-road tragicomedy and turn it into a cultural touchstone, that can spin a yarn into a myth.

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