The film became a critical and commercial success, receiving six Academy Award nominations and winning one for Best Original Screenplay for Khouri. Scott was nominated for Best Director, and both Sarandon and Davis were nominated for Best Actress. At its release the film stirred controversy. At the intersection of several genres, it is now considered a classic. It influenced other films and artistic works, and became a landmark of feminist film. In 2016, the United States Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Best friends Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer set out for a weekend vacation at a fishing cabin in the mountains, to take a break from their dreary lives in Arkansas. Thelma, a ditzy housewife, is married to a disrespectful and controlling man, Darryl, while sharp-tongued Louise works as a waitress in a diner, and is on-off dating a musician, Jimmy, who spends most of his time on the road.
On the way they stop for a drink at a roadhouse bar where Thelma meets and dances with a flirtatious stranger, Harlan. When he takes her outside to the parking lot to get some fresh air, he starts kissing her and taking her clothes off without her consent. Thelma resists but Harlan hits her, and then starts raping her. Louise finds them and threatens to shoot Harlan with the gun that Thelma brought with her. Harlan stops but as the women walk away, he yells that he should've continued the rape and insults them. Angry, Louise responds by shooting him dead, and the pair flee the scene.
At a motel, they discuss how to handle the situation. Thelma wants to go to the police but Louise fears they won't be believed and be subsequently charged for murder. They decide to go on the run, but Louise demands they travel from Oklahoma to Mexico without going through Texas. Something happened to Louise in Texas several years earlier and Thelma suspects it was exactly what had happened with Harlan but Louise adamantly refuses to discuss it. Heading west, the women come across an attractive young drifter, J.D., who Thelma quickly falls for, and she convinces Louise to let him hitch a ride with them. Louise then contacts Jimmy and asks him to wire transfer her life savings to her. When she goes to pick up the money, she finds that Jimmy has come to see her to deliver the money in person, and the two spend the night together. Jimmy proposes to Louise but she refuses. Meanwhile, Thelma invites J.D. to her room, and they sleep together. She then learns he is a thief who has broken parole.
The following morning, Thelma leaves J.D. in her motel room while she meets Louise downstairs for breakfast and, when they return, they discover J.D. has stolen Louise's life savings and fled. Louise is distraught, so a guilty Thelma takes charge and later robs a nearby convenience store using the tactics she learned from listening to J.D. Meanwhile, the FBI are getting closer to catching the fugitives after witnesses at the bar saw Louise's 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible speeding out of the parking lot the night of the shooting. Their whereabouts are also questioned by the owner of the fishing cabin after the women failed to arrive for the weekend. Arkansas State Police Investigator Hal Slocumb leads the investigation and questions both J.D. and Jimmy, and taps into the phone line at Darryl's house. He discovers that Louise had been raped years earlier in Texas, so sympathizes with her situation and understands why they didn't report Harlan's murder to the authorities. During a couple of brief phone conversations with Louise, he expresses his sympathy and pledges to protect her, but is unsuccessful in his attempts to persuade her to surrender.
Thelma tells Louise she understands if she wants to go back home, knowing she has Jimmy waiting for her, but explains she can't go back to Darryl. Louise promises they will keep going together. The pair are later pulled over by a New Mexico state trooper for speeding. Knowing he will soon discover they are wanted for murder and armed robbery, Thelma holds him at gunpoint and locks him in the trunk of his police car, while Louise takes his gun and ammunition. They drive away from the scene and spend the next few nights heading further west. On the road, they encounter a foul-mouthed truck driver who repeatedly makes obscene gestures at them. They pull over and demand an apology from him, but when he refuses, they fire at the fuel tanker he is driving, causing it to explode.
Thelma and Louise are finally cornered by the authorities only one hundred yards from the edge of the Grand Canyon. Hal arrives on the scene, but he is refused the chance to make one last attempt to talk the women into surrendering. Rather than be captured and spend the rest of their lives in jail, Thelma proposes that they "keep going". Louise asks Thelma if she is certain, and Thelma says yes. They kiss, then Louise steps on the accelerator, and they ride the car over the cliff to their deaths.Susan Sarandon as Louise Elizabeth SawyerGeena Davis as Thelma Yvonne DickinsonHarvey Keitel as Detective Hal SlocumbMichael Madsen as Jimmy LennoxChristopher McDonald as Darryl DickinsonStephen Tobolowsky as MaxBrad Pitt as J.D.Timothy Carhart as Harlan PuckettJason Beghe as State TrooperMarco St. John as Truck Driver
Although the setting for the film is a fictional route between Arkansas and the Grand Canyon, the movie was filmed almost entirely in the states of California and Utah. The primary filming locations for the movie are rural areas around Bakersfield, California and Moab, Utah. The Grand Canyon scenes were actually filmed just south of Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah.
The film was an overwhelming critical success. Metacritic lists a composite critical score of 88 out of 100. Rotten Tomatoes rates Thelma & Louise 83% "Fresh". Janet Maslin of The New York Times had only praise for the film in her review: "Mr. Scott's Thelma and Louise, with a sparkling screenplay by the first-time writer Callie Khouri, is a surprise on this and many other scores. It reveals the previously untapped talent of Mr. Scott (best known for majestically moody action films like Alien, Blade Runner and Black Rain) for exuberant comedy, and for vibrant American imagery, notwithstanding his English roots. It reimagines the buddy film with such freshness and vigor that the genre seems positively new. It discovers unexpected resources in both its stars, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, who are perfectly teamed as the spirited and original title characters." Roger Ebert also praised the film, but withheld a perfect score on the basis of "the last shot before the titles begin. It's a freeze frame that fades to white, which is fine, except it does so with unseemly haste... It's unsettling to get involved in a movie that takes 128 minutes to bring you to a payoff that the filmmakers seem to fear."
The film was screened out of competition at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. After watching the film, singer-songwriter Tori Amos wrote "Me and a Gun", the story of her rape six years earlier, which she had told only a few people about before watching this film. Affected by a scene in the movie, Amos began sobbing publicly in a crowded movie theater and writing the lyrics to the song in her head.
Argentinian singer and musician Fito Páez wrote a hit song called "Dos días en la vida" ("Two days in one lifetime") after watching this movie. The lyrics tell the story of the main characters, with verses played by singers Fabiana Cantilo (in the role of Thelma) and Celeste Carballo (Louise). It was one of the most successful singles from his 1992 album El amor después del amor.
The final scene, where the two embrace each other before driving off a cliff, has become iconic. Numerous homages and parodies of the scene have appeared, including alternate movie endings, cartoon parodies, video game "Easter Eggs", and as a tragic ending to television series, music videos and commercials.
The film also received harsh and significant criticism from those who thought it was anti-male and that its depictions of men were unfairly negative.
Numerous critics and writers have remarked on the feminist overtones of Thelma & Louise. Film critic B. Ruby Rich praises the film as an uncompromising validation of women's experiences, while Kenneth Turan calls it a "neo-feminist road movie". In her essay "The Daughters of Thelma and Louise", Jessica Enevold argues that the movie constitutes "an attack on conventional patterns of chauvinist male behavior toward females". In addition, it "exposes the traditional stereotyping of male–female relationships" while rescripting the typical gender roles of the road movie genre.
In her review for The Los Angeles Times, film critic Sheila Benson objects to the characterization of the film as feminist, arguing that it is more preoccupied with revenge and violence than feminist values.
In an article commemorating the film's 20th anniversary in 2011, Raina Lipsitz called it "the last great film about women" and said that it heralded the achievements of women that caused 1992 to become "the year of the woman". However, she also said that women-themed films have since been losing ground.
Khouri won an Academy Award for Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen; Scott, Davis, Sarandon, cinematographer Adrian Biddle, and film editor Thom Noble were nominated for Oscars.
The British Film Institute published a book about the film in 2000, as part of a Modern Classics series. On the Writers Guild of America Award's 101 Best Screenplays List it made No. 72. The film was ranked on the Australian program 20 to 1, in the episode Magnificent Movie Moments.
American Film Institute listsAFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – NominatedAFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – No. 76AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains: Thelma Dickinson & Louise Sawyer – No. 24 HeroesAFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – No. 78AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – Nominated
Pete Haycock on slide guitar contributed to Thunderbird, the theme music for the film. In addition to Glenn Frey's "Part of Me, Part of You", which became the film's primary theme song, the soundtrack included songs by Chris Whitley, Martha Reeves, Toni Childs, Marianne Faithfull, Charlie Sexton, Grayson Hugh, B.B. King, and Michael McDonald.