Gender Bender Over Thelma & Louise

A white-hot debate rages over whether Thelma & Louise celebrates liberated females, male bashers -- or outlaws

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It is, as SUNY-Buffalo's psychologist Bunker says, "a fabulous move dramatically, a catharsis for all those times you've taken something and couldn't give it back." But taken together with some of the women's other acts, does it represent an excessive response to the provocation? Sarandon insists not. She says the charge shows "what a straight, white male world movies traditionally occupy. This kind of scrutiny does not happen to Raiders of the Lost Ark or that Schwarzenegger thing ((Total Recall)) where he shoots a woman in the head and says, 'Consider that a divorce.' " Sarandon insists that all concerned spent a lot of time making sure Thelma & Louise didn't turn into "a bloodlust-revenge film." Certainly, compared with the typical male- action film, the violence here is spare and rather chastely staged.

But that's not really the issue. What people sense, particularly in Davis' performance, is that she is getting off on her newly discovered taste and talent for gun-slinging outlawry. It's a kick, not so very different from, maybe part and parcel of, her newly discovered pleasure in sex. This is something nice girls -- nice people, nice movies -- are not supposed to own up to, let alone speak of humorously. But as Bunker observes, violent assertiveness is "basically unrestrained expressiveness," and, let's be honest about it, we all enjoy our opportunities, all too rare in the real world, to partake of its pleasures.

The cost, though, is high. It is toward self-destruction that Thelma and Louise's road inevitably winds. For all the time they have been out there expressing themselves, a posse has been relentlessly closing in on them. By a pleasing irony, it is led by the only thoroughly nice guy in the picture, detective Hal Slocumbe (Harvey Keitel). A patient, sympathetic man, he is this myth's wise father figure. By the time Thelma and Louise finally see him, however, he is one of a small army of cops who have hemmed them in against the top of a sheer canyon wall. Hal advances toward them, arms outstretched, in a last-minute plea for reason.

Fat chance. The women eye him, eye the drop ahead of them, imagine a prison stretch, contemplate the last free choice available to them -- life or death -- and floor the accelerator, sailing off the cliff into the movie's concluding whiteout.

Unlike most of the plot points that have stirred debate, this one actually deserves it. Sure, everyone recognizes it as a straight steal from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but what final meaning does it impose? Sarandon thinks it's "the least compromising ending. You built this whole film to have these people not settle anymore, and then you'd toss them back into the system?"

It's hard to find anyone who thinks the women should have turned themselves in. It is equally hard to find anyone who detects a note of triumph in their suicide. Novelist Alix Kates Shulman quotes La Pasionaria on this point: "It's better to die on your feet than live on your knees." But as Brooklyn Law School professor Elizabeth Schneider points out, the message here is that "self-assertion and awakening lead to death." Or, as film scholar Annette Insdorf puts it, "When death is your only choice, how free are you?"

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