Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise is often read as a feminist version of the road movie: a gender-swapped response to that ever-beloved genre in which man finds himself on the open road. Yet the film is more than the story of two women adopting masculine roles: Thelma (Geena Davis), Louise (Susan Sarandon), and their 1966 Thunderbird convertible trace a new geography across America. Their desire for freedom—first from their lives and eventually from the law—maps a physical space that breaks away from the (literal) system of the interstate highways, leading them further and further from established routes. Their diversion leads them off the road, off the grid, and eventually into thin air.
Louise’s boss: “Thelma, when you gonna run away with me?”
Louise: “Not this weekend, sweets. She’s running away with me.”
Best friends Thelma and Louise need to get away. Trapped in a dead-end job at a restaurant, Louise is frustrated with waiting tables—and with waiting in general. Likewise, Thelma is also trapped: making breakfast, doing dishes, and playing housewife to her deadbeat husband. The women are not remarkable; their quickly sketched portraits are common, relatable tales of claustrophobic female experiences. Trying to break their cycle of ennui, the women plan a weekend getaway to a friend’s cabin. And when they finally hit the road, they taste the freedom they were looking for. Their travels take them to the Silver Bullet truck stop, where Thelma cuts loose. Even the tightly wound Louise indulges in a margarita. But it is at this truck stop where their route takes its first detour: Thelma is nearly raped by a man she had been dancing with. Louise shoots him, and the women flee onto the highway. Their harried escape sends them out on a noisy, busy freeway. Headlights beaming and horns blaring, cars and semi-trucks zoom past. The women have been thrown off their straight course. Though the purpose of the trip was to break from the well-worn path of their daily routine, Thelma and Louise now find themselves off the road entirely.
Louise: “I need you to find all the secondary roads to Mexico from Oklahoma City.
I think we should stay off the interstate, we’re too conspicuous.”
The film, divided into loose sections that shift as the women cross state lines, provides an inversed mirror image of the interstate development process. As they flee the reaches of state and federal law enforcement, Thelma and Louise are forced outside established routes. Their desire to outrun victimizing social structures pushes them into a still un-mapped geography, taking them literally off the grid: two-lane highways cutting across farmland and cattle grazing fields, small full-service gas stations, and abandoned rest stops.
By crossing state lines, Thelma and Louise are wanted not only by the Arkansas State Police, but also by the FBI. Once they enter Oklahoma, they become the target of the federal government, and are pursued along highways that were created by this very body. Federal aid for highway expansion in the United States began in the early years of the 20th century, peaking in its second half. Begun in 1956 and declared complete the year after Thelma & Louise‘s 1991 release, the American Interstate Highway System was designed to ease the movement of American families during the post-war economic boom. The act of moving through the American geography changed, as did the physical manifestation of economic activity along these roads: the interstate highway systems relegated highway-adjacent businesses to hubs at on/off ramps and interchanges with other highways.
As the women continue their drive to freedom, they enter the world of this almost-completed interstate system. On/off-ramps dip and weave around anonymous motels and diners. It is here that they have their last contact with a figure from their past. After a desperate phone call, Louise’s absentee boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen) meets them to deliver what amounts to her life’s savings: $6000 in cash. His attempts to convince Louise to return to her previous life fall upon deaf ears. Although she was originally impatient for his return, Louise finds Jimmy’s intrusion into her current world disruptive. The irreversible shift in her direction has refracted her choices in a way that highlights things she may have once welcomed—marriage, commitment—in a different, undesirable light. Before Jimmy leaves, Louise says: “I’ll catch up with you, later on down the road.” Both partners silently understand this to be untenable.
Louise: “We’re not in the middle of nowhere, but we can see it from here.”
The women’s run from the law takes them on a tour of the abandoned, the derelict, and the geographically forgotten. They seem portentously aligned with the case of the famous Route 66, the “Main Street of America.” This famous American thoroughfare stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles and represented a significant moment in the initial highway development of the nation. It stands as a midpoint between the original post-war car-travel boom and the multi-lane behemoth highways of later years. Yet by 1985, it had been officially removed from the United States Highway System, its entire span from Chicago to Los Angeles substituted in piecemeal by segments of the vast interstate system that crisscrossed the nation. Many portions that weren’t reintegrated into the new systems were even abandoned entirely, the roadways taken back by nature. Thelma and Louise’s flight from the law forces them to traverse a similarly disappearing geography. As they are driven away from the mainstream, and the literal main streams—of traffic, people, and progress—they are also ostensibly driven back in time.
This aged, anachronistic road is written on the land; its gas pumps look older than Louise’s car. But it is also written on those who occupy this dusty time and place. In two separate instances, Louise encounters elderly locals outside the nearly abandoned roadside stops she and Thelma frequent. On both occasions, they stare directly at her, their eyes connecting with hers. The intentions or emotions behind their gazes remain a mystery, but the lines on their faces speak to a deep sense of history: of time passed, but also of time willfully forgotten. It is telling that these figures—two women sitting together; a man sitting alone—remain utterly silent, as does Louise. They are not character foils or narrative devices. They do not serve any purpose for the women. Rather, they are physical reminders that the geography through which Thelma and Louise are now travelling is rooted in the past.
Thelma: “Let’s keep going.“
Thelma and Louise ultimately cannot outrun their past, nor can they evade those who chase them. All the while, they have been pursued by FBI agent Hal (Harvey Keitel), a sympathetic figure who consistently worries about the wellbeing of the “girls” on the run—but aggressively pursues them nonetheless. He is the film’s figurehead of methodical law and order: hunting down leads, searching extensive databases, doggedly following up on interviews. While he drives Thelma and Louise further into unknown territory, he still commands it. Running from the small army of police officers at his disposal, Thelma and Louise are forced to flee the demarcations of their previous travels entirely. Moving even further away from the superhighways to which they escaped after the murder, the women abandon roads altogether, cutting their own swath across the desert along the former, forgotten path of Route 66. The dust swirls oppressively around them, encasing them in an unknown morass of natural wonder, away from a landscape of clear-cut highways. The dust is natural, and yet seems somewhat unnatural in an environment where spaces are often tamed and civilized by hundreds of miles of blacktop.
Thelma and Louise’s craving for freedom leads them on increasingly isolated paths—they leave behind interstates, highways, roads, and finally land altogether. Reaching the literal end of the road, Thelma and Louise must either turn themselves in to Hal or drive off a cliff. They choose the latter, hands clasped and finally free soaring through the air. Their flight from the law began as an escape, but as they near the edge of the Grand Canyon, the truth becomes evident: there is no cement highway or gravel road that can take them where they want to go.