BUTCHETTE CASSIDY & THE DANCEHALL QUEENIE

If nothing else, director Ridley Scott gives audiences plenty of atmosphere to soak up. His first film The Duellists was a borderline bore saved by the photography having shaped the Napoleonic era as if imitating compositions of art; we felt more in a museum than in a movie house. His second movie Alien altered the face of the boogie man genre and set the formula for technoscares. Scott’s next entry into futura, Blade Runner, dazzled and fascinated with its horrifying glimpse of environmental catastrophe, yet its characters left more than a few of us indifferent. His comatose thriller Someone to Watch Over Me reeked with expensive glossy chic, and like all the others, the expertise of the artificial swallowed most of the actors. Scott’s impersonal style might get momentary flashes of life from some performers but mostly they’ve been anesthetized by it. Not so with his Thelma & Louise. Though there’s an abundance of Hicksville atmosphere to absorb, at the center are humans—not humanoids—and that’s a Ridley Scott first. Long overdue for mainstreaming, Thelma & Louise is the distaff buddy movie we’ve been waiting for—a 90s Butchette Cassidy and the DanceHall Queenie. Writer Callie Khouri has etched a revealing, tough portrait of Southern male attitudes towards women and equally exposed the underbelly of Southern women’s consent to schmoozing charmers. While it could have easily tipped over into a mean-spirited feminist tract, Scott, his Louise played by Susan Sarandon and his Thelma played by Geena Davis—and the Chauvins too—bring to the show an appreciated naturalism wrapped in casual amusement that keeps the protruding messages of revenge for female disparagement from becoming sexist hoot. Scott and Khouri don’t pretend that women get breaks, but they have, for two hours at least, leveled the playing field just a bit. Even with the variation on role reversal, neither do they really bring anything thematically new to the party. At least on the golden, often dusty, makes-you-thirsty surface. (Looking through Adrian Biddle’s lense gives sufficient reason for Louise’s desires to skip town; on the other hand, some of his highway panoramas are utterly breathtaking.) For sure the audience knows what’s coming—the martyrdom. This is where quarrels amongst moviegoers begin. I’d argue that, while entertained by the devices that lead to the inevitable, it’s that “sure thing” we don’t really want. We’ve become a lot more jaded and overtly corrupt to want the myths of sexy blazing guns like Newman’s Butch and Redford’s Sundance; we want nose-thumbing ridicule—we want the women to make it to Mexico. We know why they don’t: Thelma and Louise are setups as sacrifices to the whims of men. Susan Sarandon’s power plant runs on caffeine and cigarettes, puffing out the toxic vibes. She’s always on the edge, ready to crack her whip. Her “beaver’s eager” Annie Savoy in Bull Durham the one real exception, throughout her career she’s been pretty consistently emanating a lesbian-like chill producing cold fronts; you sometimes find it difficult to warm up to her. Her dyky intensity recalls some of Bette Davis—feminism not as sexy attraction but as deadly weapon, sex not as joyous bang but dangerous manipulation. There’s castration in them there eyes. So the controversy of Louise’s latency—is she, as a result of being raped in Texas some time back, a burgeoning les?—is given credibility by the subtle doubt in the performance. If Louise may love her boyfriend, an Elvis look-alike, the weariness she feels, the heavy burden of being what she may no longer be takes charge over the role-playing. Where Geena Davis bursts with spontaneity, Sarandon’s is of the controlled variety. She’s more unaffected than usual, yet she’s still too enumerative; she goes down for the count on all her feelings. You might ask yourself what is this coffee-saturated speed demon doing in so ludicrous a place as Bubba, Arkansas, but there’s always been a built-in puzzle about Susan as actress: she never quite seems to be where she should be. Geena Davis is a major surprise. A little of her can go a long way: in The Accidental Tourist, in Quick Change, her determined artlessness is grating, her sweet dingbat pushing the limits. Not trusting her own likability, she tries too hard. As Thelma, she takes command of the character’s newfound liberty and has found in herself a kicky, daring freedom and scene for scene, line by line, she not only comes close to overshadowing Sarandon, she gets very close to giving the definitive performance of what’s called unadorned acting. As a supreme compliment, she’s a marvel of ordinariness. Though Khouri’s script is reconstituted buddy pulp and Scott puts the ladies first and tries for a feminist mythology, movies that can affect change in social attitudes don’t do it by glorifying the deaths of Bubba’s broads. They do it by using Bubba’s methods against him—and getting away with it.

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