Thelma & Louise—still settling, 25 summers on

Somehow “the last great film about women” remains an outlier.

illustration by Jessica Hartjes

Thelma & Louise was released on May 24, 1991, a modestly budgeted buddy-road movie from the director of Blade Runner and first-time screenwriter Callie Khouri, who wrote the script in longhand. It was a simple story: Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon), headed for a weekend away from their disappointing lives, stop at a saloon on the way. A man attempts to rape Thelma, Louise shoots him dead. On the run they go.

"This is one chick movie that isn't about to whine, bitch or back-seat-drive. Ridley Scott, the director who gave us Ripley in Alien, wouldn't allow it, and for that matter, neither would Davis or Sarandon," wrote the Washington Post's Rita Kempley, whose review included a prescient aside: "That's not to say that Thelma and Louise are male-bashers or that the movie is a load of spiteful feminism."

The idea that this was a movie of man-hating and -killing (as Davis has said, "The only people who die are Thelma and Louise") became the summer of '91's hot-button cultural issue, to the point Time put its stars on the cover atop the headline "Why Thelma & Louise strikes a nerve."

But that nerve didn't stay struck. The copycats never came. Better parts for women have amounted to a handful. Khouri won the Oscar—it took 15 years for another woman, Diablo Cody, to win—but hasn't written anything close to this since. In 2011, The Atlantic called Thelma & Louise "The last great film about women."

It remains an outlier, still and so far a singular touchstone, an iconic feminist film directed by a man. "One very common theme in the press was, 'This changes everything. Now there are going to be so many female buddy pictures, so many female action figures,'" Davis told Vanity Fair last month. "'This just completely rewrites everything,' and it didn't. The really short answer is, it didn't do shit."

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