I am a fan of Ridley Scott’s flamboyant visual style of filmmaking.
Although he has had numerous box office successes, in my view he has never equalled the overall excellence of THELMA & LOUISE (1991). It is a fabulous movie and an outstanding debut script by first-timer Callie Khouri.
Here is an attempt to analyse the structural dynamics of this wonderful screenplay and film.
SEQUENCE A (8.5mins): Preparations.
00.00 Opening Titles: Landscapes that express freedom.
02.00 At diner, Louise is serving & advises against smoking, then smokes.
03.00 Thelma at home, hasn’t asked husband yet for permission to leave.
03.30 Darryl patronises Thelma, humiliates her, she still doesn’t ask.
04.30 Darryl leaves in sportscar, shouts at workmen.
05.00 T. calls L.. After the manager’s innuendo, they arrange their departure.
06.00 Louise leaves, montage shows both getting ready.
07.00 Louise picks up Thelma, who carries half household with her. Polaroid.
SEQUENCE B (13mins): Departure and disaster.
08.30 Driving. T.: I didn’t ask. L.: You get what you settle for (i.e. Darryl).
09.30 Thelma is smoking, looking in the mirror: “I’m Louise.”
10.30 Dusk, Silver Bullet, going to have fun. Different responses to Harlan.
13.30 Louise is reserved, it makes Thelma nervous. Harlan shouts drinks.
15.00 Dancing, line dancing. Thelma dances with Harlan.
16.30 Louise back to table, Thelma keeps dancing. Louise wants to leave.
17.30 Thelma is unwell, they go outside. Louise is looking for Thelma.
18.30 Harlan: Not gonna hurt you. T. resists. He hits her and attempts rape.
19.30 Louise appears with gun. “Suck my dick”. She shoots. (I.I.)
SEQUENCE C (11mins): Figuring out what to do.
21.30 They escape. L. blames T. for her behaviour. Police won’t believe them.
22.30 Louise vomits. Trucks & noise everywhere. Let’s have a coffee & plan.
24.00 They try and figure out what to do. Thelma calls Hal. Nobody home.
25.30 Detective Hal with waitress: Harlan deserved it! She defends T&L.
27.30 No money. Need to figure out what to do.
28.30 They argue. Go to police? Not ready to go to jail.
29.30 T. at the pool, L. calls Jimmy for money. Do you love me?
31.30 L. & T. leave in a hurry. They have decided to run. (PP1)
END OF ACT ONE: The decision has been made to go on the run.
SEQUENCE D ( 8.5mins): Organising money.
32.30 Hal’s boss: Possibly interstate. Let the FBI in on this.
33.00 Louise: Let’s go to Mexico. Are you up to this? I’m going.
34.30 L. calls Jimmy. He will send the money. I miss you, Peaches.
36.00 T. calls Darryl, he’s watching a game, judging but not concentrating.
39.00 Young handsome JD asks for a lift. Thelma is keen, Louise says no.
SEQUENCE E (10.5mins): To Oklahoma for the money pick-up.
41.00 Hal is on the case, looks up Louise’s car: ’66 Ford Thunderbird.
41.30 Louise doesn’t want to Mexico go through Texas.
43.00 Hal is investigating at Louise’s place.
43.30 Thelma and Louise are enjoying the ride.
44.00 Detective Hal is investigating at Louise’s Diner.
44.30 They see JD again; Thelma begs to pick him up. Louise gives in.
45.00 Detective Hal interviews Darryl, who is more concerned about himself.
46.00 JD to T.: Your husband sounds like a real asshole. T: he is. They bond.
47.00 JD warns them, they avoid an approaching police car.
47.30 Hal has info on Thelma’s gun etc.
48.30 They go to pick up the money. Jimmy is there, he books rooms.
50.00 JD leaves them and each go to their rooms. L. to T.: Guard the money.
SEQUENCE F (16mins): Mid Sequence, cross-cut.
51.30 Jimmy is jealous & violent. He calms down and proposes to her.
54.00 JD knocks on door. T invites him in. They have fun and make love.
1.00.0 Over breakfast Louise and Jimmy kiss goodbye.
1.04.3 T. arrives: Finally got laid properly. Left money in the room. Run!
1.06.0 Money gone. Louise breaks down. End of Thelma’s innocence.
1.07.0 T. cheers L. up, takes control and drives. Move! (MPR)
SEQUENCE G (10.5mins): Thelma has found her calling.
1.07.3 Hal & Co with Darryl. When she calls, be gentle. Women love that shit.
1.10.0 Thelma robs Store. Drive us to Mexico.
1.11.0 FB: This is a robbery // Hal & Darryl watching. Everybody is shocked.
1.12.3 Thelma brags about her robbery. Found your calling. You’re Disturbed.
1.14.0 Sexist truck driver. They think we like it.
1.15.0 Police now with Jimmy.
1.16.0 Louise with old man, gives him her jewellery.
1.17.0 L.: murder one, little defense. T.: How do you know all these things?
SEQUENCE H (8mins): Fugitives.
1.18.0 Hal blames T.’s robbery on JD. They wouldn’t have otherwise.
1.22.0 Thelma calls Darryl. He knows. L. calls, asks for police.
1.23.3 Hal knows about Mexico. T. talked. L. angry: We’re Fugitives now.
SEQUENCE I (11.5mins): Speeding towards Mexico.
1.26.0 Darryl with cops changes channel, annoys cops, changes back.
1.26.3 Driving through National Park by night.
1.28.3 Dawn. Passing sexist trucker.
1.31.0 T.: Texas. You was raped. L.: I’m not talking about that.
1.32.0 Stopped by cop: clocked at 110km/h. In trouble.
1.34.3 Thelma with gun, shoots radio. They put cop in trunk.
1.37.0 Thelma: I’ve got a knack for this shit.
SEQUENCE I (5.5mins): Dead or alive.
1.37.3 Hal: Brains only get you so far & luck always runs out.
1.38.0 Louise has doubts & regrets. Thelma justifies. Having fun, not sorry.
1.39.0 L. calls Hal: charge w/ murder;knows about Texas. Dead or alive?
1.41.3 Not giving up. Not making any deals. Dead or alive. (PP2)
END OF ACT TWO: Their fate has been sealed. T.’s arc complete.
SEQUENCE J (6.5mins): Revenge.
1.43.0 Thelma feels awake.
1.44.0 They see macho trucker again. Ready to get serious? Yes.
1.46.0 They ask for an apology. Fuck that! They shoot, truck explodes.
1.48.3 Drive on.
SEQUENCE K (8.5mins): Freedom at last
1.49.3 (POV) Stoned bicycle rider, smoke into air hole.
1.50.3 Police helicopter: closing in.
1.51.3 Police cars chasing them, they go off the road. Cars follow.
1.54.0 Temporarily shake them off under bridge. Eerily quiet.
1.54.3 Thelma: crazy, first chance to express yourself.
1.56.0 They reach the edge of a cliff: Grand Canyon. Hal appears in heli.
1.57.3 Surrounded. Hal lands. Orders to surrender.
1.58.3 Louise: not giving up. Thelma: let’s keep going. (C&R)
2.00.0 They drive, hal runs.
I.I.: Inciting Incident (or Call to Adventure)
PP1: Plot Point 1 (Act 1 Turning Point / Crossing the 1st Threshold)
MPR: Mid Point Reversal
PP2: Plot Point 2 (Act 2 Turning Point / Ordeal & Reward)
C&R: Climax & Resolution (Resurrection)
In my view, Thelma is the protagonist, for the following reasons:
1. She is prominent in the setup and we empathise/sympathise with her.
2. We may hope that she will become less submissive and find freedom.
3. Her story has a clear Inciting Incident (a major event happening to her).
4. She has a clear Mid Point Reversal.
5. She has a clear character arc.
Interestingly, if you look at Thelma’s story in isolation, the first half (before the Mid Point Reversal) she is a passive protagonist, mostly just following Louise. Only after that, she becomes an active protagonist. This passivity is counteracted by Louise’s initiative until the Mid Point.
The Inciting Incident is clear: two major events happen to Thelma: Harlan’s rape attempt and Louise’s shooting Harlan. Although Louise later argues that Thelma started it because of her behaviour, Thelma’s actions are two degrees away from the Inciting Incident (Harlan’s death) that kicks off the story. Therefore, this is clearly an event happening to Thelma, not an action by her.
This leaves Thelma with the necessity to act.
The 1st Act Turning point is more problematic: Louise takes the initiative, Thelma agrees by following her. After a period of considering their options, they have decided to go on the run. Although the destination won’t be known until later, Act Two is now set in motion. In my view, this act break is reinforced by the next scene in which we learn the FBI will be on the case. This increasing of the stakes by showing the antagonist’s power is a frequently used technique to open Act Two.
The Mid Point Reversal is at the same time a reversal of fortune (loss of the money) and proof of Thelma’s change of heart. She is now committed to her inner journey towards finding her true identity (or essence) and freedom. Two events trigger this: her first fulfilling sexual experience and the realisation that she has failed to take responsibility by constantly relying on Louise. The evidence in her commitment lies in two immediate actions: she drives the car and robs the store.
The crisis occurs when they learn about the major setback that Hal knows where they are heading and he will charge them with murder. It is a crisis moment for both women: Louise has doubts and regrets, so Thelma has to make a choice. Her newly found strength is the Reward, as well as the fact that Louise hasn’t made a deal with the police. It is a strong Ordeal moment as 1) the image of death occurs when they realise it is now a matter of life or death and 2) it signifies the death of Thelma’s old identity.
At the climax, two important actions take place: 1) Thelma demonstrates her new strength when she stands up for herself in the confrontation with the sexist truck driver and 2) by saying “Let’s keep going” she commits to her new principles with her life and seals it with the ultimate act of defiance.
POINT OF VIEW
After the characters have been set up, every scene has the hero (Thelma) or the antagonist (Harlan/the police), except perhaps one or two.
Any scenes that are not told from Thelma’s POV either add to the jeopardy (as the police makes progress) or they provide comic relief (the black cyclist blowing smoke into the trunk with the cop in it).
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.