Even 25 years after it blazed into theaters on May 24, 1991, guns drawn and smirks defiantly cocked, there are still precious few movies like Thelma and Louise. It's a revenge story, a cowboy adventure, and a road trip tale that's also a loving ode to friendship — all anchored by two ferocious women.
Men may weave in and out of the movie's story along the way, but Thelma and Louise — written by Callie Khouri (later creator of ABC's Nashville) and directed by Ridley Scott — is first and foremost about women, which sadly still makes it a rarity.
As stars Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon have said several times since the film's release, they knew they were playing the kind of defiant, messy protagonists that are almost always played by men, but they still had no idea how much Thelma and Louise would excite people. "We thought we were doing a Butch Cassidy or a Jules et Jim," Sarandon told Entertainment Weekly in April 2016. "Not making some kind of statement."
The truth of the matter lies somewhere in between. On its own, Thelma and Louise is a meticulously written, beautifully shot film about outlaw justice, one that runs on heartbreak and fury. In a larger cultural context, Thelma and Louise is a milestone film that unequivocally put women — not to mention women's anger — first.
To celebrate its 25th anniversary, here are six quotes that explain the movie's enduring appeal and importance.
1) "I've had it up to my ass with 'sedate'!"
While both women in the film's title undergo significant transformations, it's Thelma (Davis) who blossoms on the open road, shedding her old skin of a frustrated housewife to enthusiastically adopt the persona of a carefree drifter.
Thelma is sweet and curious, but as we quickly learn, she's got a wicked, troublemaking streak that she relishes unleashing once she's free of her abusive husband, Darryl.
The second she hops into Louise's car, Thelma makes the decision to let go of her life, even if just for a weekend away. She commits so hard to flipping off her meek reputation that even her encouraging best friend is surprised.
"I just haven't seen you like this in a while," Louise (Sarandon) says with an arched eyebrow, as Thelma orders a Wild Turkey with a Coke chaser at a roadside bar. "I'm used to seeing you more … sedate."
Something flashes in Thelma's eyes. "I've had it up to my ass with 'sedate,'" she scoffs. "You said you and me was gonna get outta town and for once let our hair down. Well, darlin', look out, 'cause my hair is coming down."
With that declaration of independence, Thelma throws caution to the wind — which is just as well, because her quiet, staid little life is about to get thrown out the window.
2) "When a woman's crying like that, she's not having any fun."
For a second, it seems like Thelma and Louise is a buddy road trip movie with snappy dialogue. But everything becomes infinitely more complicated the second Harlan — the random lurching Neanderthal they meet at the roadside bar — tries to rape Thelma in a parking lot.
Though Louise successfully frees Thelma from Harlan by pointing a gun at his head, his defiance in the face of humiliation is what gets the better of him. He protests that the two were just "havin' a little fun," which earns an immediate, scornful response from Louise: "Just for the future, when a woman's crying like that, she's not having any fun."
Harlan still doesn't get the message, even with a gun pointed at his face and his pants rumpled around his legs. As Thelma and Louise try to leave, he lashes out: "Bitch, I should've gone ahead and fucked her."
"What did you say?" Louise says, stopped cold in her tracks.
"I said suck my cock," Harlan spits.
Suddenly, it's like Louise has no control over her body, even as she knows exactly what she's doing. She raises her gun, and shoots the asshole dead.
Suddenly, the pair's escape from reality has a hell of a lot more riding on it than temporary freedom.
The entire movie shifts gears the second Louise pulls the trigger. But it's just as important that Louise's decision comes out of pure, unadulterated anger at this man who assumed he could fuck a woman whether she wanted it or not.
It might be a man's world, but in that moment Thelma and Louise decide they're done playing nice — and there's no going back.
3) "I'm the one who should be mad."
While Thelma and Louise react to killing Harlan in vastly different ways, they're united by the firm belief that they didn't do anything wrong. Their world is better off without piece of shit men buzzing around women like perpetually horny vultures. And if the law disagrees … well, that's just too bad.
Even though Thelma takes a few scenes to get herself settled after the killing, it doesn't take long before her encounter with Harlan has her looking in disgust at her husband, whose insecurity manifests itself in constantly insulting or ignoring Thelma.
When Darryl fails to pick up the phone at 4 am, after Louise has killed Harlan and the women are trying to compose themselves in a diner, Thelma realizes he likely never knew she was gone at all — and she's had enough. Frustrated and fed up, she laments to Louise, "I'm the one who should be mad."
It's a throwaway line, but it could easily act as Thelma and Louise's thesis statement. Here are all these men who get mad when they can't push us around, Thelma and Louise say over and over, but we're the ones who should be mad.
If Thelma and Louise becomes a runaway train at the moment Louise pulls that trigger, the duo's collective, righteous anger is its fuel.
4) "I wanted to show that feeling of what it's like to be in this world that wants you to be less than you are."
Khouri — whose script for Thelma and Louise won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay — has been asked about this movie endlessly since its release, and at least one thread has remained consistent: Thelma and Louise is about what it's like to be a woman in a world that doesn't accept women as equals.
"I wanted to show that feeling of what it's like to be in this world that wants you to be less than you are," she told Interview in 2014. In 2011, she was more explicit to NPR:
It's still very much a man's world, and you're still looked at through a very narrow filter. And if you step out of line, the punishment is severe. And this movie speaks to that feeling I think that women have of not being looked at as 100 percent whole human beings.
That certainly holds true for Khouri, whose inspiration for that fateful parking lot encounter came from her own life. As she told screenwriting consultant Syd Field, one of her more satisfying experiences was staring down a catcaller who said he wanted to see her "suck [his] dick," and telling him she'd like to "shoot [him] in the fucking face."
"I’m so glad I did that," Khouri went on. "Most of the time, people do those things to you, and if you’re a woman you’re supposed to simply ignore it."
So, yes: Thelma and Louise is a revenge fantasy, in the purest sense. For the countless women who have swallowed their pride or suffered incredible abuse at the hands of casually destructive men, there's something incredibly cathartic in watching Thelma's enthusiastic rebellion, Louise's constantly simmering anger, and the spark that sets them both off to the point of no return.
5) "[Thelma and Louise] didn't do shit."
For as much as Thelma and Louise has endured over the past 25 years, Sarandon, Davis, and Khouri have remained steadfast in their belief that — as Davis told Harper's Bazaar in 2016 — "it didn't do shit" to help women's stories get told more often onscreen.
Davis, who created her Institute on Gender and Media to publicize what she considers to be a persistent issue in Hollywood, elaborated to the Guardian in 2015 why she thinks Thelma and Louise didn't usher in the new wave of women-fronted films people thought it would:
The ratio of male to female characters has been exactly the same since 1946. So all the times that the press has announced that now things are better, or now things are changing, they haven’t. …
After Thelma & Louise, which was pretty noticed and potent and significant, [people were saying] ‘This changes everything! There’s going to be so many female buddy movies!’ and nothing changed. And then the next movie I did was A League of Their Own, which was a huge hit, and all the talk was, ‘Well now, beyond a doubt, women’s sports movies, we’re going to see a wave of them because this was so successful.’ That’s balls. It took 10 years until Bend It Like Beckham came out. So, there was no trend whatsoever.
While Davis, Sarandon, and Khouri all acknowledge women creators who are making things happen for themselves, they're not wrong that women-fronted films get more scrutiny and less room to fail than movies with male protagonists. (See: this summer's "all-female" Ghostbusters.)
If you want to find echoes of Thelma and Louise in film and television since 1991, they're not hard to find. Furious women stumble and embrace revenge (Practical Magic, The Craft), flee their male captors on a wild journey through unfamiliar terrain (Mad Max: Fury Road), and beat up the boys with the best of them (Preacher's Tulip).
But when it comes to women fronting their own bigger-budget films in typically male genres, the terrain is just as bleak now as it was in 1991.
Few film endings are more iconic than the closing shots of Thelma and Louise. After the police finally corner the fugitives at the edge of the desert, Thelma and Louise look at each other, then to the Grand Canyon below. They make a conscious decision that scares and excites them beyond words.
"Go," Thelma says, calm as she's ever been. They grab hands, desperate and thrilled — and then Louise guns it, sending her '66 Thunderbird careening off the cliff.
At first, everything's happening too quickly, the pair frantic as they make a break for the edge, panicked cops trying in vain to stop them. Then, as the car makes its final leap, everything slows, letting us grasp the terrible beauty of the plummeting car's steady arc to the end.
In this stunning, devastating moment, Thelma and Louise reject years of catering to other people and make the decision to end their story on their terms. Just in case the movie didn't drive it home before before, this scene makes it clear that Thelma and Louise's journey is all about putting themselves in charge of their lives, whatever the cost.
It's tragic but also triumphant — a contradiction Thelma and Louise knew all too well.