Thelma and Louise review – punchier, bolder, hotter and sweatier than ever

Screenwriter Callie Khouri’s desperada road-movie thriller Thelma & Louise is the classic whose Bechdel test credentials go all the way up to the title. Just over 30 years later, it looks punchier, bolder, hotter and sweatier than ever. This is a masterclass in narrative construction and character development and director Ridley Scott puts his pedal to the metal with pure action brio; I always particularly love the shot where the camera lovingly counter-swooshes back along the flank of the Thunderbird while it barrels down the highway, for the pure hell of it. It is a feminist crime classic in the tradition of Gun Crazy and Bonnie and Clyde, whose two heroines, played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, get the Polaroid camera out for the most famous selfie in film history. And that ending – although arguably a concession to the idea of crime not being allowed to pay – still has the power to stun.

The film is the story of two friends. Louise Sawyer (Sarandon) is a worldly wise woman waiting tables in a diner in Arkansas, whose supposed boyfriend, Jimmy (Michael Madsen) never seems to be around. Louise’s younger best friend is housewife Thelma Dickinson, a role in which Davis gave a wonderfully sweet-natured, innocent, vulnerable performance; it briefly made her an A-list star and we should have a twinge of regret thinking about the roles Davis should have been offered after this. Thelma is being bullied and cheated on by her boorish husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald) and longs for some escape. Then Louise offers her a special girls-only weekend break in a fishing cabin she’s managed to borrow – just the two of them, taking off for some fun in Louise’s sleek T-Bird.

The pair stop off for drinks at a roadhouse where Thelma dances and then goes outside with a creep who tries to rape her. Louise pulls a gun on him in the parking lot, and the chilling ruthlessness of the result, still startling even now, turns the two women into fugitives from the law. But the experience makes them more alive and wide-awake than they have been in their lives. Harvey Keitel is the kindly state cop who tries to get Thelma and Louise to turn themselves in peaceably, and Brad Pitt made his debut as the sweet-talking young rascal for whom Thelma briefly falls, but who turns out to be (almost) as bad as the rest of the menfolk.

Essentially Thelma & Louise is a rape-revenge film, and Khouri and Scott adroitly show you that the rape that it is a revenge for happened a long time before this story started: the gunshot discharges the backstory’s pent-up frustration and rage. Another writer might have given us a set-piece reminiscence making everything explicit, or even a flashback; Khouri gives us just a glancing line in the dialogue, a bitter joke about why Louise never goes to Texas any more. The movie gives us just motivation in the tank and keeps the momentum going.

There are so many great moments. Louise seeing what appears at first to be a freckle in the bathroom mirror – but is in fact blood, which she fiercely wipes away. We get some great comedy when Thelma tells Louise to shoot the cop’s radio, and poor innocent Louise thinks she means the radio he’s listening to music on. And then there’s the outrageous action-movie explosion provided by the two heroines symbolically shooting the odious truck-driver’s phallically shaped lorry by the roadside with its flammable load.

It all leads up to the Butch and Sundance finale in the Grand Canyon; perhaps tougher and more shocking than Butch and Sundance in that there is no escape into ambiguity. A warm welcome back to this great popular film.

• Thelma and Louise is released on 2 June in UK cinemas, and is screening now in select Australian cinemas.