Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.8: Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 89 (A-)

For a while there, it looked like that was it for Ridley Scott. He had suffered three critical failures (Black Rain, Someone to Watch Over Me, Legend) and hadn’t had a runaway hit since 1979’s Alien. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, came 1991’s Thelma & Louise, an unexpected blockbuster that revitalized the director’s career (and got him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Director). A cross between a road buddy picture, an outlaw movie, and an old-fashioned woman’s picture with a feminist viewpoint, the film became a cultural touchstone in the early 90s. It’s not without reason: Thelma & Louise is Ridley Scott’s best film since Blade Runner, a film filled with equal amounts of melancholy and joyous comedy, and one of his liveliest and most character-driven films.

Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) is a put-upon housewife married to Darryl (Christopher McDonald), a domineering schmuck of a man. Her best friend Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) is a tough waitress. Louise takes Thelma out for a weekend vacation where they can let their hair down and be free, if only for a little while. When a man tries to rape Thelma in the parking lot of a bar, Louise shoots and kills him. Louise thinks that no one will believe that the man tried to rape Thelma, as she was drunk and dancing with him. The two then become fugitives from the law and try to escape to Mexico, but they’ve got more than a few obstacles in their way: Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel), a police detective sympathetic to their case who nonetheless must pursue them; Louise’s lovestruck boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen), who follows them; and J.D. (Brad Pitt), a handsome thief who has broken parole.

Thelma & Louise features lighter moments of joy and fleeting happiness previously unseen in Scott’s often cold and nightmarish films. The early-going of the film features promise of fun for the two as they drink, chat, and dance, while Thelma flirts with handsome cowboy Harlan. Scott’s mastery of tone here is important, considering that he’s about to jerk it into heavy territory with a violent scene in which Thelma is slapped around by Harlan and nearly raped; when Louise shoots Harlan, circumstances become more serious still, and Thelma is a nervous wreck. Scott veers back and forth between moments of levity (Thelma liberating herself from Daryl, sleeping with J.D., and agreeing to go to Mexico with Louise) with moments of very serious drama (J.D. steals their cash, bad vibes come up as the law pursues the two, and the likelihood of their arrival in Mexico starts to look doubtful), but the transitions are smooth and masterful, accompanied by a moody blues and synth score by Hans Zimmer that suggests that freedom comes with heartache and often tragic consequences.

One of the best sequences in the film is a night the two spend with their respective lovers. The younger, less experienced Thelma flirts with J.D., seemingly a helpless little puppy dog of a student hitchhiking across the country. They play flirtatious games, learn a bit about each other’s pasts (J.D.’s troubles with the law), and make love like a couple of giddy young souls. Louise, meanwhile, has her own intimate moments with Jimmy, who’s hurt by the fact that Louise won’t tell him what’s going on, or where she’s going. Jimmy recounts the night he met Louise and proposes to her. She must refuse. It’s a moment of sadness between two people who seem like they belong together but who, through a series of extraordinary circumstances, will never come together. The way Scott and editor Thom Noble cut back and forth between the two scenarios best typifies the heart of Thelma & Louise- giddiness of freedom spiked with sadness of loss.

The description of the film might not immediately suggest that it’s from the director of Alien and Blade Runner, but the film bears Scott’s unmistakable stamp. The sets might not be quite as intricate in their production design, but make no mistake- each setting, be it a low-rent motel or a cowboy bar, feels meticulously designed for ultra-specificity and verisimilitude. More notable is the beautifully subtle costume design- Scott took suggestions from Sarandon and Davis, among others, about what their characters should wear and how they should travel, and the characters feel far more lived in because of it. As the film progresses and the two central women go further and further away from the right side of the law, they get dirtier, their clothes get simpler and more ragged, and their hair gets messier. It’s hardly a dirge, however- they’re having a blast, and they’re simply growing less concerned with how they look at every turn as true freedom lurks around the corner.

The film may take place on the road and in the country rather than in a futuristic cityscape, but Scott’s visual stamp is apparent throughout. There’s an omnipresent haze throughout the film while the characters are on the road. It gives the film a more tactile and realistic feel as we enter more morally hazy areas of this road picture. Scott uses heavy smoke and shadows for several night scenes, and whenever there’s a chance he gets to capture dust as it hits the light (the de facto Scott trademark), he takes it. The way shafts of light hit the rain during the aforementioned love scenes is striking, and Scott uses several low-lit scenes between the friends to communicate the sad feelings of inevitability to their journey. And, like many of Scott’s films, the film has a very deliberate pace so that the quick-paced scenes (particularly the ending) has a greater impact when it hits.

Scott’s love of expressionistic lighting and detailed camera movements recalls his beloved Orson Welles (particularly good is a scene that keeps Brad Pitt in the background so that we can notice him before everyone else does), and his deliberate pacing and hard-won humanism reflects that of Stanley Kubrick. But while Scott’s painterly style was always evident, Thelma & Louise’s use of wide-shots reflects his inspiration by old fashioned American Westerns a la John Ford and David Lean/Akira Kurosawa-esque epics. The film’s greatest influence is more recent: Scott reportedly screened Terrence Malick’s New Hollywood masterpiece Badlands several times before making the film. The two road movies share moral and visual haziness along with a sad feeling of inevitability in the protagonists’ journeys. But where the former film was largely about loss of innocence (as Malick films often explore), the latter is more concerned with Scott’s long-held obsession with mortality and feminism.

Some critics charged that Thelma & Louise was unfair towards men. While it’s true that it pushes Darryl’s buffoonery into too broad territory (it’s no fault of the actor’s, who’s the go-to guy to play scuzzballs), the film is hardly without its share of sympathetic male characters. Madsen’s Jimmy is a too possessive of Louise, but he has his heart in the right place. J.D. may screw the two over when he takes their money, but he didn’t know how dire their circumstances were. He just did what he’d do to anyone else. Slocumb is a warm and humane lawman who’s trying to do the right thing- he believes there was an attempted rape, that the killing was in self-defense, and that he can help the two before they get into too much trouble. He’s unfortunately working for a system that’s designed to bring women down, but it’s not his fault.

That these three are as sympathetic as they are brings credit to both Scott and the performers. He’s not often considered an actor’s director, but Scott cast these parts pretty much perfectly. Madsen brings a brutish masculinity that would hint at the actor’s talents in future films like Reservoir Dogs, but he also mixes in a previously unseen sensitivity to his character here. Keitel was on the beginning of his 90s comeback (see also: Bugsy, Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant, The Piano, Pulp Fiction, Smoke), and he shows why he’s one of the most underrated actors of all time- he’s perfect as a man trying to do the right thing in an unfair system. Pitt, in his breakthrough role, brings charming roguishness and shaggy unpredictability in a way that it’s hard not to think, “who IS this guy?” (or at least it was before he became a huge star). It’s still one of his most effective performances.

This movie is about the women, though, and the two leads give two of the best performances of the 90s here (it’s unfortunate that they were matched up against Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs at the Oscars, or else one of them might have won). Davis is one of the most talented comediennes of her generation (where the hell has she gone?), and her daffy lightness is perfect for Thelma. She’s the more immediately vulnerable of the two, yet the second half of the film shows a previously unseen wild side unleashed as she’s forced to take charge. That she’s still having an enormous amount of fun in the role doesn’t hurt. Sarandon is even better as the more world-weary Louise, a mother-figure of sorts to Thelma in the early-going whose toughness hides a sadness from an unspoken past event.

These are two strong women (a great Ridley Scott-ism) who finally find a way to break free from a chauvinistic system, but that freedom comes at a price. This is a society that punishes free women- they face sexual harassment (the attempted rape, a disgusting truck driver who pops up on the road), persecution, and heartbreak. They run because they believe the law is going to blame Thelma for being raped and Louise for killing the rapist- it’s implied this might have happened to Louise before. That they have a sympathetic lawman after them doesn’t change things- they feel that they can’t trust him, so they risk their lives for everything.

Mortality is the key theme throughout Scott’s filmography, and it’s present throughout Thelma & Louise. Scott’s moody lighting and Zimmer’s melancholy score inform the proceedings throughout, but there’s more tangible signs all the same. The threat of sexual violence justifies Louise’s shooting of Harlan, but the man’s death has catastrophic consequences all the same: now their lives hang in the balance. There’s a sad feeling of inevitability throughout the film as they race against the clock to Mexico and Keitel is forced to pursue them. By the end of the film, however, the inevitability of death isn’t totally mournful. This isn’t a Bonnie and Clyde ending where there’s no hope and the heroes are going to meet brutal death at the hands of the law. This death is a choice. Surrounded by cops ready to kill them (Keitel protests to no avail), they choose freedom and escape from a cruel world (“Let’s keep going”). After a final kiss, they clasp hands as they drive off into the Grand Canyon, and the film freeze frames a moment that’s equally heartbreaking and somehow optimistic. They might not have made it to Mexico, but they beat the system all the same, damn it, and that’s what counts.

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