From the moment it was released on May 24, 1991, Thelma and Louise was mired in controversy.

Many pundits were celebrating it as a “butt-kicking feminist manifesto”, while other critics viewed it as a perversion of the ideals of feminism; the protagonists’ actions – murder! robbery! assaulting police officers! – coming under fire for portraying women in a negative light.

Adding fuel to the fire, of course, was that ending. The debate raged for months – in homes, bars, offices, universities and among international film buffs and critics. Lead actors Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis even made the cover of Time magazine.

With the clamour that surrounded the film at the time, it is easy to forget that while it most certainly is empowering to women and presents a completely different perspective on typical male and female roles in the road film, Thelma and Louise is also a great slice of cinema.

By taking the conventions of the genre and making the protagonists women, Ridley Scott, directingCallie Khouri’s Oscar-winning script, reinvented it completely.

It starts off as a typical chick-flick. Thelma (Davis) and Louise(Sarandon) decide to spend a weekend away from their mundane lives and their respective men – Thelma’s oafish husband Darry and Louise’s distant (physically and emotionally) musician boyfriend Jimmy.

It’s all a lark; the opening scenes highlight their two contrasting characters – Thelma the ditzy, put-upon housewife, almost too childlike and naive in her demeanour, and Louise the older, wiser, self-assured soul.

Wind in their hair, country classics playing on the radio, they set off for the mountains and all looks good with the world... until things unexpectedly turn nasty and a would-be rapist is gunned down by Louise in a nanosecond of sudden, unnecessary violence.

As the women become fugitives and embark on a crime spree, what unfolds as they drive south towards Mexico is a character-driven, thought-provoking piece which never loses sight of its lighter side.

The film is peppered with humorous instances – a good counterpoint to its darker moments. It also boasts an evocative soundtrack – Marianne Faithfull’s Ballad of Lucy Jordan underscores a night-time scene in which Thelma and Louise contemplate their fate – a perfect choice of song given its fatalistic subject – and visionary director Ridley Scott stamps his indelible mark without interfering with the narrative.

In a documentary for the film’s 10th anniversary, Scott said he was attracted to the script from the get-go, especially because of its sole focus on the women. In most scripts, he recalls, the women are either the girlfriend or, as he describes them, “story umbilicals”.

Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer were originally in the running, but neither was available. However, Davis and Sarandon were Scott and his producing partner Mimi Polk’s choices; choices that were welcomed by Khouri who did not want big-name stars because she felt it important that viewers had no preconceived ideas. At the time, notes Khouri, “they were both well-known but not superstars”.

The way in which Thelma and Louise inexorably change as the story develops is fascinatingly portrayed by both actresses. Davis has never been better than in her depiction of Thelma’s awakening from repressed, awkward housewife to fearless, independent, outlaw; in stark contrast to Louise’s crumbling self-assurance as she realises that their predicament has no possible good outcome. Sarandon understood her character perfectly.

They are given strong and solid support by the men, includingHarvey Keitel as the police officer so desperate to do right by the women and, of course, one Brad Pitt as JD, in his first substantial role.

The only downside was the film’s failure to launch a spate of women-driven films that its release seemed to herald. In the aforementioned documentary, Khouri admits the film did not revolutionise women’s roles. Even now I am hard-pressed to think of a film that has had a similar impact since.

All the more reason to celebrate this classic, which remains as exciting and appealing as 20 years ago.

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