Hit the road, Jackie
As THELMA AND LOUISE turns 25 this year, let’s take a look back at the hours spent watching our favourite women put pedal to metal and own the road. Just like so many other classics, we remember the film for its ending. True to Callie Khouri’s original script (we won’t go into the alternate ending here) the two protagonists drive the Ford Thunderbird off a cliff before audiences are hit with that beautiful still, reminiscent of 80s cinema.
From start to finish, Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) are curbed by men, all of whom want something from them. Whether it’s servitude, sex, money or justice, they have to make a choice to either live in man’s world or not to live at all. However, THELMA AND LOUISE wasn’t the first road movie to show cinema-goers that women kick serious butt when hitting the highway in search of a different place (geographically or within society itself) and it certainly wasn’t the last.
BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) and EASY RIDER (1969) come to mind when discussing the birth of the road movie, but you can look further back and by taking away the mechanical element, find some classics that are road movies in their own right. THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) is undoubtedly a road movie. After Dorothy’s house is “relocated” she embarks on what can only be described as an epic yet surreal road trip. As she makes her way down the yellow brick road, much like Thelma and Louise, she meets various characters along the way that influence and shape her journey: although in this case, these characters are more palatable and frankly, much more interesting to look at.
Since Dorothy and Toto realised they weren’t in Kansas anymore, audiences have been treated to further cinematic road gems such as the effortlessly violent and provocative FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (1965) which follows three go-go dancers as they embark on a journey across the California desert, before murdering a man and kidnapping his girlfriend. Surprisingly it doesn’t end well for anyone. KILL BILL (2003) is another film that you can legitimately brand a road movie, as “The Bride” embarks upon a journey to kill the remaining members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Tarantino’s grindhouse, martial arts homage wasn’t the audience’s only glimpse of a gumptious Uma Thurman on the road. In 1993 Thurman starred in Gus van Sant’s EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES (1994) adapted from Tom Robbins’ 1976 novel of the same name. Not received warmly by critics, COWGIRLS follows Thurman’s character Sissy, a woman with thumbs that make excellent hitchhiking companions due to the sheer size of them, as she travels to New York and ends up taking over a ranch with fellow cowgirls.
Speeding back into the 21st Century, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) is a delightful example of a road movie featuring women in the driving seat. As the men in the family seem to crumble around them, both Sheryl and Olive Hoover (played by Toni Collette and Abigail Breslin) are the driving force keeping them going physically and emotionally. As the men in the film struggle with various obstacles: broken business deals, attempted suicide, unobtainable dreams, old age and heroin addiction, the two women carry the film and the characters in it to a contented finale in which the importance of family is realised. Kelly Reichardt’s overlooked 2008 indie number, WENDY AND LUCY is another great example of how the road allows characters the freedom of self-realisation. It follows Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy as they travel to Alaska in search of work, before getting arrested stealing dog food. Eventually, after navigating the strange town to find Lucy, Wendy decides that leaving her canine companion behind is the only way they will both survive. Ultimately, the road movie is about survival, whether it’s holding a family together, enduring physical and mental obstacles or choosing to surrender to fate.
Audiences have seen the classic road movie develop and adapt. Characters aren’t sticking to one road or one country any more, and the road is expanding. EAT, PRAY, LOVE (2010) fueled a hunger for solo exploration and travel by focusing on globe-trotting rather than spanning a single desert or the familiar American highway which audiences expect from this genre. Characters now need to cross oceans to learn life lessons and feel a sense of freedom: a 30-minute yoga class or 2000 miles across a desert just won’t cut it anymore.
THE WIZARD OF OZ taught us that a road movie doesn’t need to feature a car to be a road movie, it just needs, well, a road. The 2013 biographical film, TRACKS, adapted from the memoirs of Robyn Davidson follows a fiery Mia Wasikowska as she crosses the Australian desert in search of solitude and freedom, accompanied by four camels, her dog and occasionally National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver). A bio of a similar breed hit cinemas a year later with WILD (2014), another walk you’d only ever contemplate after 14 gins and a lobotomy. Wild follows Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail, using the road as a bandage to help mend old wounds caused by the recent breakdown of her marriage.
By engine or foot, THELMA AND LOUISE, along with its predecessors and contemporaries, have shown audiences women too can navigate the road with all its uncertainties and obstacles. Cinematically the road has been used as a metaphorical therapy session for both men and women throughout film history. The road enables characters to find themselves, absorb new lessons, escape or to simply find a way back home again. A stretch of road is far more than tarmac. In the end, the road can indeed bestow upon us new hearts, new minds and a boot-load of courage.