Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.

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I’ve always assumed that I would love Thelma and Louise. Any woman with a best friend and an asshole of a man in her past is bound to love it, right? This film is a classic rally-call for feminist rebellion- or at least that’s what popular opinion has led me to understand – and I was anxious to get in on the action. True to Film Dunce form, and as if to corroborate all my accumulated assumptions about the movie, the Hollywood Video girl let out a little gasp when she saw my DVD selection and gushed, “Oh my god, I love this movie! I can’t believe you haven’t seen it yet!” Feeling giddy and a bit conspiratorial, I gave her a big smile: I was on the brink of joining the cinematic sisterhood, and I was pretty damn excited.

What follows may sound traitorous, to my sex and critical consensus alike; but after all the hype, anticipation and myriad apologies to my boyfriend (who agreed to be my movie buddy in exchange for a bottomless beer supply in anticipation of the anti-man frenzy that I imagined would overtake me), I found Thelma and Louise to be moving, yes – but in a tragically ironic and desperate sort of way, not at all the wild gal road flick I’d been expecting. Part of my disappointment is due, I am sure, to overly high expectations (along with an intense personal disdain for girlie squealing); and I’ll bet it would have been a different experience entirely had I set this up as an Angry Bitch viewing party with a bunch of disgruntled girlfriends and ample Wild Turkey. But despite having left most of my hyper-zealous feminism behind me in the wake of undergrad Women’s Studies seminars, I fully expected to snap back into it with this movie – to get riled up and want to hit the shooting gallery. Instead, I was struck by the tragedy of the film, by the dead-end world that Thelma and Louise find themselves confined to even on the open road.

There’s no question that Louise is right to shoot Harlan, a slimy good old boy rapist who attacks Thelma in a truck stop parking lot; and the girls’ decision to flee their unsatisfying home lives and the hand of the law at all costs is, at least hypothetically, pretty badass. But as their journey progresses, we realize that they’re surrounded, scared shitless, and doomed — and that violence, heavy drinking, sex and ultimately suicide are the only ways in which they ever get to feel alive. These women may turn the tables on the bastards who plague them, but it’s “beat them at their own game” pseudo-feminism, a hollow victory for women who may get to have a little fun but fail to realize their free and honest selves.

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It’s not as if they don’t try, though, despite being victims of heinous circumstance from the start. Geena Davis’s Thelma, at first all goofy and girlie, subservient and awkward (a stellar performance, by the way, from someone as imposingly gorgeous as a six foot tall and tremendously strong actress can be), does grow some balls: she picks up a sexy drifter (a young Brad Pitt who, next to Davis and Sarandon, looks pretty puny, actually), throws back Wild Turkey with the best of the boys and discovers an innate knack for armed robbery and assault that’s as polite and thorough as it is effective. And that’s all well and good, considering that’s she’s a fugitive and all. But it leaves her hollow even as it clears her head. She drinks her way across the country while the ever-determined Louise drives for their lives, evolving in both looks and mannerisms into a tough, overtly masculine femme fatale: she’s taking back a power that has always been used against her by men, an exhilarating power – but it’s not hers, it’s theirs; and it will never make her free or happy. As for Louise (an older, wiser, infinitely harder Susan Sarandon), she’s already been through the ringer – we can see it on her face and feel it in her desperation to evade capture by the police, by any man – even by Jimmy, the man she loves. Louise doesn’t have any delusions of real and lasting freedom, even as though placates a terrified Thelma with visions of a life together on a beach in Mexico. She’s simply hardwired to run: happiness as a wife or lover, as a woman who would ever trust a man again, is no longer an option.

None of this is to say that Thelma and Louise isn’t a powerful film about loyal friendship and valiant determination, or that the justice exacted upon piggish jerks from Arkansas to Oklahoma by a waitress & housewife team-turned-Amazonian road warriors isn’t infectiously thrilling. I felt the glory of their transformation, the intensity of their bond, and I get why this is such a popular “girl power” movie. Yet with each escalated incident of vigilante justice, I was left, not with a sense of liberation, but instead with that of uneasy fear and overwhelming pity. Thelma and Louise may go down in glory, as the iconic final screen capture suggests; but their idealized soar to freedom is eclipsed by the darkness of their fate and the realization that, while they sure as hell blazed a new path through the maze of a male-dominated society, there was never any chance they’d make it out alive.

by Lauren Westerfield
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