THELMA & LOUISE Blu-ray Review: Soaring Into the Criterion Collection
Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis star; Ridley Scott directed. An American studio masterpiece has never looked better.
A gregarious polyglot as a filmmaker, Ridley Scott has tried a bit of everything. By the time Thelma & Louise hits screens in 1991, he has already made two of the most important science fiction films of all time, and has tried his hand at historical drama, fantasy, and neo-noir. (In the thirty years since, he's done pretty much everything else, except a musical.) Thelma & Louise, to my eye, is the gateway between his early efforts and everything that's come afterwards; never a slouch as a visualist, this is the film where all the other substances of filmmaking come together with the kind of effortlessness that few directors are able to match.
Working from Callie Khouri's acerbic script, we join our leads -- Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, never better -- en route to a weekend fishing trip that goes quickly, gruesomely wrong when an act of sexual assault leads to murder. Neither woman -- Louise (Sarandon), too old for her waitressing job and harbouring deep trauma from an unspecified past; Thelma (Davis), so cruelly repressed under the thumb of her bozo husband that she becomes an emotional juggernaut when unleashed -- can face what the system will inevitably do to them if they turn and face the consequences of two women having killed a man. So they run.
What follows is one of the great American films of the 1990s, a road movie that becomes a chase picture that becomes a western, and all of which becomes iconic, as quickly and fluidly as Louise downshifts from gear to gear in her frosting-green Ford Thunderbird. Khouri's script is wonderful -- decades later, it remains bracingly bare-faced about generations-deep gender inequity and sublimated, misogynist violence -- and Scott's management of tone is so generous and adroit that the film remains a high water mark of his long and varied career.
Each supporting performance is superb. Timothy Carhart, as the would-be rapist, oozes a claustrophobic entitlement in every physical gesture towards Thelma. Harvey Keitel, as the cop slowly putting together the narrative of what the women have done, evinces empathy... to a point. (These are still "girls," after all.) Both Michael Madsen and a startlingly tiny Brad Pitt are beefcake par excellence. And the magnificent Christopher McDonald gives one of my favourite comedy performances of all time, as Thelma's absolutely out-to-lunch loser of a husband.
Sarandon and Davis, meanwhile, transform evocatively onscreen. All bonnets and frilly dresses to begin with, they shed the codings of their femininity as the Thunderbird hauls across the southwest, transcoding into the looks of modern (male) gunslingers of '80s and '90s action movies. In the same year, Sarah Connor, herself once a waitress, was emerging from the desert in combat clothes and aviator glasses; Thelma, robbing a liquor store late in the picture, could be her sister. There's an ancient sadness to Sarandon's Louise, detailed and careworn. Davis' Thelma, on the other hand, seems to only now begin realizing what being awake truly feels like -- which only tightens the desperate tension that grows as the women make their way across the south.
It's the sense of the landscape that really sends the picture over the top for me, though. An expat Brit, Scott has a uniquely keen sense for the mouth-feel of travelling great distances by car across the American states; not just the wide roads and huge skies, but the eccentric minutiae of truck stops, roadside bars, and those weird little stores that seem more like standing pieces of Dust Bowl art than places of business. By the time Thelma and Louise are in Monument Valley on their way to the film's crushing denouement, Scott is fully in John Ford mode.
Newly restored in digital 4K for this release, Thelma & Louise joins the Criterion Collection as spine #1180 (incredibly, it's Scott's first film on the label). For my review copy, I was only able to secure the Blu-ray edition, which splits feature and supplements across two platters; the 4K release includes a third disc featuring the film in UHD. Even in 2K, however, the image quality for this release is a startling upgrade against prior editions.
Detail pops off the screen (an early shot of McDonald walking past a running sprinkler and then falling on his ass next to his ketchup-red cock car is breathtakingly sharp), and colour reproduction throughout is deep, true, and nuanced. There is none of the DNR haloing or other digital artifacting, and film grain is reproduced handsomely on shot after shot after shot. You'd better believe I'm strongly contemplating the 4K upgrade even now, but the Blu-ray copy will still stand out as a format highlight on any system.
The set also posts a nicely deep bench of supplemental features, thanks to re-use of materials from prior studio releases. A commentary track from 1996 features Scott; another from 2001 brings in Khouri, Davis, and Sarandon. The entire second disc is given over to archival content, including Thelma & Louise: The Last Journey, an hour-long documentary from the 2001 DVD release.
New for this release: a conversation between Scott and film critic Scott Foundas, called Ridley Scott: Beginnings, which explores the start of Scott's career (incredible to think how much closer Thelma & Louise is to that era than Scott's work today), and includes Boy & Bicycle, Scott's first short film (starring his brother, Tony!).
Further fleshing out the disc, Callie Kouri is also interviewed in 2023. (Her logline pitch for Thelma & Louise is stunning in its straightforwardness.) Even today, she has deep insights into the psychology of the characters she created, and the interview does a great job of shining some light on that creative process -- including some insightful connections to film noir, and even the evolution of the soundtrack.
It was an absolute treat revisiting Thelma & Louise for this review and I suspect I'll watch it a few more times in just the next few months; far from "getting old," it's the rare film of its vintage that seems fresher every time I watch it. Here's hoping the new restoration gets some play on cinematheque screens around the world, too. I bet this film looks terrific on the big screen.
Thelma & Louise
- Ridley Scott
- Callie Khouri
- Susan Sarandon
- Geena Davis
- Harvey Keitel