Thelma & Louise masterfully builds its titular characters from women dependent on their jobs and men to stone cold outlaws. Their transitions aren’t immediate or specific to any one event, they encounter many challenging experiences and stronger both as a team and as individuals from them. It all ends with two showdowns, both epic, both with Thelma and Louise finally in complete control of their surroundings, the men in their lives, and their own fates. Spoilers ahead, obviously, but like you don’t know what happens.
Directly after the couple make the fateful realization that they can’t go back to their old lives, a scene which plays out with a sweet melancholy, comes the most broadly comedic sequence in the film. Somehow they cross paths yet again with Earl, the crude truck driver that has whistled out sexually explicit advances throughout their journey. This time, though, the women are ready to do something about it. They pull up beside the truck and he takes the bait easily. “Hey baby, you ready for a big dick,” he exclaims. They come to a stop and pull into a nearby lot.
Once Earl gets out of his truck, his reflection is shown from a hubcap as he gleefully twists his hips. There is no doubt that Earl represents some sort of hyper-masculine id, a man-baby who says whatever he wants to women without fear of repercussion. Quickly, though, the focus shifts to a beautiful shot from behind Thelma and Louise posing on top of their convertible---Thelma’s revolver tucked in the back of her jeans, a Chekov’s gun in its most visible form. They are close to the front of the frame, taking up most of the space, with a tiny little Earl walking toward them in the background. The dynamic has completely and dramatically changed. He is not only physically dwarfed by these women newly freed from the shackles of their lives, he is almost literally devoured by their presence.
As he approaches, Louise tells him to take off the sunglasses covering his face---as he does so, he’s taken his shield down, exposing his emotional expression to the world. The metaphor is fairly obvious, but appropriate.
The film cross cuts between close-ups of Earl and his adversaries. Louise is strong and angry. Thelma is confident and disgusted. Earl’s shit eating grin suddenly melts off, not used to any form of retaliation. Unable to apologize for his behavior, Earl doubles down on vulgarity with an exaggerated exclamation “Fuuuuccck that” before turning to flee. As soon as he does, Louise has her pistol pointed [strangely, not the gun that was showcased so prominently before, but it works].
Earl’s expression changes again, now as a petulant child, the manifestation of the man-baby. After one more [even more exaggerated] “Fuuuuuuuuccck you,” Thelma and Louise open fire on his truck, first flattening out each tire then taking out his payload in an epic explosion. Louise looks up at the stunning blaze with admiration; Thelma can’t quite believe the beauty of it all. Earl is left in a tantrum, his fists shaking at the sky. The “bitches from hell” have taken down the man. Rejoice!
A few minutes of screentime later, we’re at the famous climax. The duo on-the-run realize they’ve been spotted and we get shots of the Thunderbird and cop cars running through the desert, kicking up millions of dust particles. The editing picks up with quick cuts as a high speed chase turns in an action setpiece full of crashes and flipped cars---the dramatic change in speed ratchet up the stakes. Finally, the camera pulls back for a wide shot overhead to see Thelma and Louise being pursued by dozen or so cop cars. Otherwise surrounded only by desert, there is nowhere for them to go.
And yet, they are given one more brief quiet bit of respite. The action soundtrack turns down and only the quiet sound of their engine can be heard. They nervously take a few drags on a cigarette before exploding in laughter when Louise asks Thelma how she’s enjoyed the vacation. “I guess I went a little crazy, huh?” Thelma responds.
Another wide shot shows off the incredible beauty of the Grand Canyon setting they’ve somehow stumbled across. Then, in the distance, a lone helicopter rises up. The soundtrack comes back, this time more menacing, supplementing the entrance like of a final boss. Shortly after, Thelma and Louise come to the literal edge of their journey, shown to us through the sight of a sniper rifle.
As Thelma and Louise make their fateful decision to “not get caught,” they are shown in the tightest close-ups that allow us to see their eyes and mouths. Their emotions are bittersweet but continue to have the defiant edge---they are crying, laughing, and loving all at the same time. Suddenly, the car speeds ahead, cross-cut with Detective Slocumb running far behind in glorious slow motion as if to emphasize the point that he can’t reach them.
The film’s final eight shots come in rapid succession over about 10 seconds, quickly building to an emotionally eruptive finale. 1) the car speeding away, 2) Thelma and Louise from behind as they grasp hands in solidarity [accompanied by a brilliant quick zoom on their combined fists], 3) the car’s cluttered back seat with the women’s selfie flying away, 4) final shot of Thelma, 5) final shot of Louise, 6) Louise putting pedal to the metal, 7) hero shot of the Thunderbird flying off the edge of the cliff, from behind, and finally 8) the iconic image of the car soaring through the air as the image fades to white [interestingly not to black, which I think provides a much more hopeful feeling to their imminent death].
We are left with the credits rolling along to a montage dedication to the friendship of Thelma and Louise. It is a stunning ending. Subversive and radical in just how joyous it is. We aren’t left crying for these characters but celebrating them.