Monday, March 07, 2005

'Thelma & Louise' and doomed outlaw buddy pictures

THELMA & LOUISE (1991). With Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen and Christopher MacDonald. Written by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott.


Watching 'Thelma & Louise' again, I made a point to really understand how the pair got to the state of fearlessness to make their final decision. We're with them all the way because Davis and Sarandon are so likable, and because their plight is mythologized by the film as it progresses. The final showdown with cops and canyon is outrageous if you dwell on the specifics, but it really is their only choice.

But because the end of this film is so bold, it could easily have been a disaster. On the DVD special edition, an alternate ending is included. The final cut of the film ends with the car still in its upward arc, frozen, as Hans Zimmer's kick-ass score soars, and then cuts to a montage of clips showing the pair enjoying themselves and life. The alternate ending shows the car speed off the cliff without a freeze. The car plunges into the canyon as B.B. King's "Don't Look Down" plays. Watching both endings, the choice of which one to use was a matter of life and death for the film. The alternate ending undermines the story because it shows Thelma and Louise dying a nasty death. It's surprisingly agonizing to watch. The ending that Ridley Scott settled on is the only way to make the movie work.

Think of 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," which also freezes on the cusp of its violent ending, before we see carnage. Like 'Thelma & Louise,' it immortalizes its courageous pair by snapshotting them instead of subjecting them to a fusillade of bullets. Would 'Butch Cassidy' have worked if we saw Robert Redford and Paul Newman shredded by gunfire?

It did for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in 'Bonnie & Clyde.' In fact, their death sequence is one of the most celebrated, and it's because of the beauty in its brutality. We see every bullet hit every sinew, and the camera lingers until they fall gracefully to the ground, deader than dead. What if the film froze on Beatty and Dunaway looking into the sky at the scattering birds, and the sound of gunfire was played over the still frame (like in 'Butch Cassidy')?

I guess it's an issue of who deserves to be immortalized. We're comfortable immortalizing characters like Butch Cassidy and Sundance, but we can't let Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow off the hook. We need to see them fileted for what they done. But didn't both pairs commit the same crimes -- murder and armed robbery? So it comes down to a matter of style. 'Bonnie & Clyde' is a movie about blood, 'Butch Cassidy' is more about slipping in wisecracks while committing capital crimes.

But neither pairs were ever really wronged. Thelma and Louise were made victims by the men in their lives. In their movie, though, only three people die, and two are Thelma and Louise. The third is a rapist who attacked Thelma. In 'Butch Cassidy,' there are a slew of casualties along the trail. In 'Bonnie & Clyde,' practically everyone dies. And for what? Sport?

I'm not judging these movies by their body count or morals -- 'Bonnie & Clyde' and 'Thelma & Louise' are two of my favorites and couldn't be more different. It's just interesting to compare the specifics of DOB (doomed outlaw buddy) pictures. Of course, if you want to compare DOB pics, then you have to get into genres. 'Bonnie & Clyde' is practically a folk song. 'Butch Cassidy' is a Western. 'Thelma & Louise' isn't easily pegged, but it's no folk song or Western. Then there's the issue of how they died. Bonnie and Clyde were killed by surprise, unarmed. Butch and Sundance went out, guns blazing. Thelma and Louise committed suicide and, consequently, their film has the only happy ending of the three.

Tangent aside, the special edition DVD of 'Thelma & Louise' is blessedly plump with extra features, including precious commentaries by Davis, Sarandon, writer Callie Khouri, and Ridley Scott. Watching the film as Davis, Sarandon and Khouri reminisce about the rollicking shoot is good fun, and shows just how many of the film's magical moments were happy accidents.

What other DOB pics are there? I can't think of any. But what binds these three together is not just the common denominator of death, but that they're all love stories, one between two men, one between two women, and one between a woman and a man. I think it's about time for a Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks DOB pic. Maybe they can be wanted by the laws for being criminally cute, and the final scene can be a freeze frame as they jump off the Empire State Building as "Make Someone Happy" plays. On second thought, scratch the freeze frame.


Middento said...

Interesting post -- what do you think of If... in this context? It's more of a group picture than a buddy picture, but does end similarly. (In the same vein, Taps might also fit, but people actually seem to survive that.)

There is something of this quality also in Midnight Cowboy as the Premiere article recently reminded me. Yes, Voight's character is still alive -- but you can't tell me he's not as doomed as Ratso Rizzo.

J.J. said...

'If...' I've never even heard of, let alone seen. 'Midnight Cowboy' entered my mind, but I'm looking at a very narrow definition of the DOB pic: two people on the run from the law who face a simultaneous and certain death at the film's end, and by "run" I mean on a definite journey on the road. So I guess a more accurate term would be "Doomed Outlaw Buddy Road pictures." I don't think 'Midnight Cowboy' would fall into that category.

Middento said...

Heh, well, then you've got yourself the only candidates for your category then. (You didn't take my class on genre, did you? *grin*)

If... is part of the British Free Cinema period, directed by Lindsay Anderson in 1969 and starring Malcolm McDowell in one of his first roles (after Poor Cow and before Clockwork Orange. Also won the 1969 Cannes Film Festival and is basically seen in the context of '69 as an indictment on everything, pure counterculture. Haven't seen it in a while, but worth a look.

Supermaques said...

Hey, i'm actually writing a paper that compares bonnie and Clyde to Thelma and Louise, and i thought a lot of your points where interesting, i very strongly agreed with your ideas about the ending, the way that these movies are best compared is the ending, Bonnie and Clyde was almost like the alternate ending to Thelma and Louise for me.

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