American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold, is the granddaughter of Thelma and Louise — a road journey with classic mythic structure which follows the coming-of-age (or not) of an 18-year-old named Star. Star comes from a tough background — the classic orphanedunderdog, with a mother who has overdosed, and an auntie(?) who requires Star to look after her young kids rather than looking after Star, who definitely needs protection, from the abusive guy she’s got hanging around.
Star has an allegorical name — an ironic name, because this kid will never be a starlet. Refreshingly, she doesn’t even want that. Star explains to Jake that her mother chose it because we’re all made of ‘Death Stars’. Now it’s not ironic. This is an example of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death — Star has already had this character arc. She’s lost her mother to meth. She’s faced death before. By this point in her 18-year-old life she’s learning to live with the fact that we’re all headed for the grave. This explains her hedonism. When Star explains her name to Jake, this is more of a revelation to the audience than to Star herself. Star has not fully come to terms with death — that takes some decades. She mulls it over on several occasions — when she realises the trucker she hitched with has been carrying a load of cattle, and when she accidentally steps in blood (or what looks like blood) in a ditch.
It’s inevitable that a disenfranchised kid like Star will fall into bad company, because most any company is better than what she’s starting out with. Bad company rolls into town as a band of magazine hawking troubadours in the guise of magazine salespeople, with a subculture reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. They’re headed to Kansas — synonymous to most outside Kansas with The Wizard of Oz — another mythical journey starring a girl. Arnold encourages the connection with a cut to a pair of sparkly red shoes which belong to Star’s little cousin. But this is no dreamland. This crew are outlaws with their own set of rules. They punish each other physically for coming last in their sales ranking system. This is headed by a matriarch rather than a patriarch, and reminds me of Alex Garland’s The Beach. The matriarch as villain is an interesting device in a feminist film, and at this cultural moment almost a necessary one, to avoid the hackneyed old ideas of women as one hundred percent victims of the patriarchy, or the dreaded Female Maturity Formula, in which girls have already been through their character arcs, existing only as models for boys to have theirs. We need more female villains. Krystal is wonderfully complex. We get just enough to wonder about her backstory.
Other reviewers have doubted the entire premise of this road trip — who buys magazines anymore? Andrea Arnold lampshades this by having Star ask it up front. What’s never clear is if there are any magazines. If there were, they wouldn’t make money. My interpretation is that there are no magazines. People are paying for a scam. The magazines exist only to justify the begging. Why else do they need to travel so far to get away from each town?
Freshly free of childcare responsibilities, Star’s road trip kicks off. Road trips are hard to write well. They tend to feel splintered — one damn encounter after another. The road trip is by nature a linear plot shape — a masculine plot shape. But when road trips star girls and women, they tend to look a little different. Star’s trip is circular, as they move through areas completely foreign (wealthy and built-up) back to a poor area which reminds Star of her own home. Female journeys are more likely than male journeys to be circular in this way.
We now get to see the childlike side of Star, who isn’t ready for the world of work. She plays the fool, gets high, and doesn’t know a violent man when she sees one. If Jake promises her ‘a present’, she’s putty in his hands. She’s come from nothing, so a present equals love. This movie is basically a love story — or can we call it that? It’s not a love tragedy, either. Like Arnold’s Fish Tank, this is the arc of an emotionally neglected teenage girl falling in with a bad older man, then finally making her escape, or not.
Arnold makes sure we empathise with Star by giving her numerous Save The Cat moments — twice she rescues an insect. Eventually she uses her sex work cash to buy groceries for neglected kids. Star has a strong moral code, in opposition to Jake’s. She has no time for lying and bullshit. Her reaction alone tells us a lot about her backstory — she’s had nothing but lies and bullshit her entire life. She’s also empathetic because she doesn’t want for much, and we see that as an endearing thing. She meets a trucker and tells him she wants lots of kids and her very own trailer. It never crosses Star’s mind that she could maybe have an actual house. The truck driver himself comes across as extremely empathetic — unlike the truck driver in Thelma and Louise, he’s not turned into the villain — he’s big into boats but despite driving miles for his job, he admits he’s never been to the ocean. He’s not young. We know he maybe never will. This could be Star in three decades’ time — it’s quite possible Star will live her life dreaming. And is dreaming enough? That’s where the symbolism of the magazines come in. If anyone wonders why people would still buy them, the trucker gives us the answer — the magazines are dreams — dreams that even poor people can hold in their hands. The trucker buys two subscriptions, and for him, that will have to satisfy his love for actual boats.
The film employs only a couple of professional actors — the rest are amateurs recruited from carnivals and suchlike. This feels like cinema verite. Each of them looks interesting and distinct. It feels like the actors were left to ad lib. You really feel like you’re in the bus with these young people, for better or for worse. If you’ve ever been on a bus trip, to summer camp, stayed in a hostel, flatted, or partied, you’ll get this.
There’s commentary about rich and poor in America as the bus travels from mega wealthy to poverty stricken areas, where the problems look different. When Star gets to the house of neglected children we’re given closeups of photos pasted without frames to the wall, a near empty fridge, Mountain Dew. This is how we’re shown, tis could be Star’s own house. She’s missing her little cousins and now she’s back in Texas, where she grew up with her meth-addicted mother, she’s come full circle. This is the beginning of her epiphany, though we never get to see what that epiphany is. Maybe she realises this is her entire lot in life, which is why she buys food for these strangers with her sex work money. Or maybe she realises she can use situations like these as a negative example, and start planning to get out of it. The overall message is egalitarian — echoed in the film credits, which list only names, with no distinction between actors and film crew. Krystal explains that poor people will buy magazines because they feel sorry for you, but rich people will buy them because they feel guilty for being rich. Krystal’s take on life may or may not be accurate, but this is how Arnold encourages to view the rich and poor as basically the same, only with different angles on the same societal problem of late stage capitalism.
There’s commentary about homophobia — it’s subtle, but one of the gay characters doubts he can go door to door in redneck country. Subtext reading: he’s not safe here. There’s little commentary on race — this is not Andrea Arnold’s story to write. Our main girl is a woman of colour, but this is a story about white America. It’s clear these white kids identify with Black culture — they have a love for rap and call each other the n-word. It’s left up to us to decide why these kids align themselves with a culture that’s not entirely their own.
The ending is left open for the viewer to extrapolate. Jake gives Star the turtle and she sets the turtle free. Then she joins the turtle in the water. One interpretation: Star is now free like the turtle, having experienced a revelation. Meanwhile, the others dance over a fire to Raury’s tribalistic anthem ‘God’s Whisper’. If that’s not religious imagery of rebirth, I don’t know what is. Then again, Star has given away Jake’s (stolen ring) present before — is this the part where Star finally sees this violent, coercively controlling man for what he is? Maybe. But if she doesn’t see it now, she never will. Take a close look at the lyrics to God’s Whisper, though — you may need to look them up because the song feels morphed and warped in the film — and it’s clear Star has realised who Jake really is:
I won’t compromise I won’t live a life On my knees You think I am nothing I am nothing You’ve got something coming Something coming because I hear God’s whisper Calling my name It’s in the wind I am the savior (Sing it again!) Savior Savior (I can’t hear you! What?) Savior (What?) Savior
The outro music is “I Hate Hate” by Razzy Bailey — an ironically breezy tune with children backing up in the chorus.
That’s why I’m singing now I hate hate, everybody sing it with me I hate hate, let’s all get together now I hate hate, the good Lord above Don’t you know I love love Oh, you got to have love
“I Hate Hate” can be interpreted in two ways. The singer either despises ‘hatred’, or they really, really hate something (with the double ‘hate’ serving to emphasise). I interpret this choice of song as Star’s acknowledging to herself that she hates this man, but this experience isn’t going to stop her from living life to the full. It’s okay to acknowledge the bad stuff, and that’s how we move on. Mind you, the irony could have a darker side. She could acknowledge this guy’s terrible and yet choose to stay with him.
For us, Star’s journey ends here. Does she use this newfound hatred to escape? For all we know, this young woman could keep traveling these American highways forever, trapped in a hot bus with a bad man and a stifling, drug-addled rag-tag crew who don’t seem to see abuse when it’s right in front of them. This is the water they swim in, and this is how abuse works. Streetwise matriarch Krystal does see it, but she’s toxic and ignores it. She may even revel in watching it play out, accepting the abuser back when she promised his victim he was gone.
Why do girls fall for these guys? Many outsiders have wondered that about women who stay with bad men. Star’s journey in American Honey affords us a view of destructive attraction from the inside, because Shia Labeouf makes an excellent job of him. He’s been well-written, too. We should now be left with a little insight for how these relationships happen, and empathy for the girls involved.
Although American Honey is comparable to Thelma and Louise, I make the comparison mainly because there are so few road trips starring women. Arnold avoids the problematic, overdone trope which concludes Thelma and Louise — that in order to achieve perfect freedom, a female character must pay the ultimate sacrifice: her life. (In stories about men, it’s more often the male best friend who pays with his life.) I am left hoping for the very best for Star. I think she might be okay now that she’s a little more worldly. More importantly, the real-life audience might be a bit more okay, too. Watch this with your young adult daughters and discuss with your sons.
Listed on IMDb as a comedy drama, The End Of The Fxxxing World is a darkly comic coming-of-age tale with a major crime at the centre of the plot. It is also a twisted and cynical romance. The script is written by Charlie Covell, based on the graphic novel by Charles Forsman. Forsman is an American writer, from Pennsylvania. Covell is a British writer and longtime actress. You may have seen her in Siblings or Peep Show and most recently Marcella.
STORYWORLD OF THE END OF THE FXXXING WORLD
How to adapt an American story for British screen, filmed in Britain?
Jonathan’s idea was always to try and do Americana, British-style. So if you look at the way Lucy Tcherniak and Jonathan both shot it, there are lots of nods to American TV shows, hopefully, and American landscapes. So we were trying to find parts of the UK that didn’t look quintessentially British – we filmed the finale on the Isle of Sheppey, and so hopefully there’s a feeling of expanse like you’d get in the Midwest. I think it was almost trying to do a Fargo-take on Britain, so they move from suburbia to an English version of the Wild West.
Speaking of Americana, the audience is reminded periodically that this is ‘not a Hollywood movie’. Which is true — it’s a limited British TV series. The car isn’t going to blow up because it’s not a movie. Then it blows up. Both characters are informed by media they have consumed over the course of their lives. Alyssa’s behaviour is explained by her enthusiasm to watch the porn channel in the hotel room. She has no doubt been exposed to a lot of that. She’s seen a lot of crime shows (haven’t we all), and she calls upon her knowledge of crime fiction when deciding to clean the house after their murder. This gets around something all writers wrestle with — how to stop characters sounding like they’ve got their dialogue straight out of someone else’s crime fiction? One workaround, used here and also used in Thelma and Louise, is to acknowledge the fact that your new-to-the-life criminals probably did get their dialogue from elsewhere. Thelma repeats the souped up show-off dialogue of Brad Pitt’s character. Alyssa finds rubber gloves and bleach.
When Alyssa smashes her phone, this solves a big problem for contemporary writers, telling tales about people who would normally be fully contactable. This is fully in keeping with Alyssa’s character so it works. “I’m so glad I smashed my phone,” she says, later, reminding us that no one can easily find them. When we take technology away from our characters, the story immediately has a retro feel. This one feels almost like the 1970s or 1980s, especially with the style of Alyssa’s father’s jacket, and even the architecture of the house they break into.
The big question introduced in the pilot: Will James really murder Alyssa? If so, how? This question sustains the entire series.
The voice over technique affords novelistic advantages as we hear the thoughts of Alyssa and James, juxtaposed against how they are acting and what they are saying. Watching The End Of The Fxxxing World is like reading a novel which alternates point of view after each chapter. A film which uses a similar technique is About A Boy, also British. Sure enough, both The End Of The Fxxxing World and About A Boy are based on books which alternate points of view.
In line with the ‘Americana’ aims, The End Of The Fxxxing World is basically a Thelma and Louise plot with young adult main characters.
Two characters go on a road trip, each of them hoping to have some kind of fun. One of them in particular just wants something to change — anything. She needs some kind of awakening.
Both Thelma and Alyssa are escaping domestic violence.
An initial rape scene ends with the other killing the rapist, who has raped many times before.
This is just the first crime in a series of others.
There are stops in cheap hotels, and other characters along the way, who they foil.
The characters they meet are stereotypes, which make our heroes seem more human.
One of the cops on their trail feels great empathy for them, engendering empathy from the audience, too.
After their last big crime, Alyssa, like Thelma, declares that she’s never felt so alive, or more like herself. She’s finally found out who she really is.
The pair look set to ‘drive off a cliff together’ (try to motorboat across the channel with no supplies and no fresh water), though that would’ve been too faithful to Thelma and Louise, so they change it a bit.
People who have seen Bonnie and Clyde have said this is the millennial version of Bonnie and Clyde.
Road trip movies take the shape of mythic stories. These stories can feel episodic (and therefore lose narrative drive) because of all the different settings and characters encountered along the way. Modern audiences don’t have much time for episodic stories. So modern storytellers have to find ways to make their threads interweave. In Thelma and Louise, the Brad Pitt character keeps cropping up, for instance. In The End of the Fxxxing World:
Alyssa and James’s parents have never met, but they are eventually filmed sitting side by side on the couch. These characters come together rather than drift apart, lending cohesion.
There is plenty of conflict between Alyssa and James themselves. They spend part of the story each on their own. When they come back together, more cohesion.
It’s critical to have a definite end goal, even if they end up off track. This end goal has to be established early. (Alyssa’s father’s place.)
There is a parallel journey going on — in this series it is the cop duo, tracking them. Because they’re following the same mirrored journey, this gives narrative cohesion.
We therefore don’t mind that Alyssa and James briefly meet a number of temporary characters and spend every night somewhere else.
The writers of The End Of The Fxxxing World use a trick employed by Cormac McCarthy in No Country For Old Men. In this case not one but two unsympathetic characters are introduced. The girl is annoying but the boy is portrayed as psychopathic. Terrible though these people are, they suddenly seem relatively normal once they happen to break into the home of a serial murderer. Likewise, Walter White seems benign when compared to the experienced drug lord running Albuquerque.
Alyssa is not initially a likeable character, but she is is constantly fascinating. Like Lady Bird, she is far from perfect but she knows what she wants. She wants an adventure. She’s going to get her adventure even if she destroys her life in the process. (Alyssa is a more extreme version of Lady Bird of Greta Gerwig’s film.) Alyssa is a Thelma-character in some ways, but a Louise in others. By the end of the story she is a young Louise — we know she’ll be cynical and world wise now that she’s even seen through her Dad.
The character arc of James is imbued with comic darkness — he thinks he’s a psychopath. It turns out he’s not — his deadness inside has been a defence mechanism, which started the day he witnessed his mother drive into the pond. Through his relationship with the gregarious, assertive Alyssa, he learns that he is capable of feeling things after all. Tragically for him, he learns this lesson the moment he dies.
This series inverts a number of gender tropes.
When female characters break free they are very often required to sacrifice their lives the moment they achieve their aim, failing to break free at all. Thelma and Louise is a classic example of this. It’s so common it’s problematic, genderwise. Plenty of men are sacrificed in movies too, but not in this way. But this time James dies in a typically feminine way.
The cops are both women.
At the petrol station it’s a woman boss who is mistreating a male underling working in customer service, and who tries to play the hero by apprehending Alyssa.
Because Alyssa is so nihilistic in her own right, the show avoids turning her into some Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
In other ways, gender norms are not subverted. A disproportionate number of the male characters are perverts. James winds up sacrificing himself for a girl. Alyssa’s father is a stereotypical useless, uninvolved manchild.
The female cop duo are not in the original comic. One character has been split into two. This is interesting because in most paper to screen adaptations, characters are culled, not added. There is no romantic subplot for the cops in the comic. Their story mirrors the story of Alyssa and James, in a way. Neither is sure they really want to be with the other, but they are each drawn to the other anyhow, in a constant push and pull. The antagonistic relationship between the cops allows for dialogue about the themes: How much empathy and leniency do these kids deserve? Are they still kids?
James’s plan to kill Alyssa comes to an end after a few episodes. To be honest, this almost turned me off watching it. I don’t think I’d have continued had this plan continued longer. But when his plan is changed, he no longer has any plan at all. He’s basically a stunned mullet. It is Alyssa who comes up with all the plans from there on in. This is fairly common in a story with two main characters — one of them makes all the plans, the other goes along with them.
Alyssa’s father Leslie is a comical character — a tragic hippie trope. Portrayed as pretty dim, the joke at the end is that he’s not as dim as we thought he was — he knows enough to call the cops and get reward money. Jeff Kinney use’s Greg Heffley’s older brother in a similar way, setting him up as stupid, then rewarding the audience with the occasional ironic lightbulb moment where he seems pretty genius. Alyssa’s father is soon brought down again, because Alyssa is smarter by a long shot.
The Long Haul (2014) by Jeff Kinney is the ninth book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I wrote about Jeff Kinney’s writing process in this post, after reading various interviews with him around the web. Kinney tells everyone the same thing — he writes the jokes first, finds a way to string them into some sort of story, then does the illustrations in a single two-month flurry of industry. In short, the jokes come first, story a distant second.
However, when Kinney wrote The Long Haul, he already knew it was going to be turned into a movie, and if middle grade novelists can get away with a ‘jokes first’ approach to story structure, Hollywood scriptwriters can’t.
I was writing it with a movie in mind—this is the first book that I’ve written in three acts and with cinematic set pieces. So I really had a different hat on when I was writing this book.
Road trip stories are an established genre, especially in America, where car ownership also has a long history. The road trip story also seems to have come out of Westerns, in which characters traversed large swathes of land with the hope of finding something better — ultimately themselves.
A long tradition of road trip stories meant Kinney had an established structure to work with when writing The Long Haul. He only had to fit his jokes around that. (Yep, easier said than done, of course.)
Here’s what the author has to say about his (lack of?) personal inspiration forThe Long Haul:
Q: Some of your childhood experiences inspired the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. Is that the case in this book? Do you have a crazy road trip with your family that you were drawing from?
A: I long ago tapped out my own childhood experience. There’s very little of what I went through in this book.
I’ve always had road trip fantasies, and I’d love to rent an RV, a really souped-up RV, and go cross country with my family. But on the book tour I’ve really gotten to see a lot of the country in buses and I’ve realized that it’s nice to have a driver. I think it’s very impractical—it’s not very likely that I’ll end up on a road trip with my family with me in the driver’s seat.
If you go to IMDb you’ll see that The Long Haul film has garnered a miserable rating of 3.6. I can’t say whether the film structure was a success, but the producers are fighting against another big struggle: The original characters have now aged out of their roles so brand new actors are playing beloved characters. This has not pleased the established audience.
Jeff Kinney does what others have done to avoid that fragmented feeling you can get from road trip stories:
The whole family is in the one big car. The family members themselves are each other’s main opponents. Greg himself has his brothers (each quite different in the nature of their opposition). The male family members are in constant opposition to the mother’s feminine wish to create a happy family situation by turning into the uber-Mom, over-organising everyone, enthusing over activities but coming up short. The scriptwriters packed even more characters in the car by bringing Rowley along for the ride. (Rowley is absent in the book.) Along the way they are joined by a baby pig.
An enduring opponent is the Beardo family— aptly named by Greg because the father has a beard and Beardo rhymes with Weirdo. The illustrations show this family to be a rather hapless ‘white trash’ sort of family off on a very similar family adventure. Sure enough the Heffleys keep running into them. The Beardos are the enduring opponent. Interest and comedy ensue, since this Beardo family does literally nothing to the Heffleys, but Greg gets it into his head that they are mastermind criminals basically following them about to steal all their stuff. This single family who they keep comically running into means fewer disparate opponents are needed overall. This helps avoid story fragmentation.
The Long Haul is a home-away-home structure but with lots of little self-contained stories scattered along a linear-circular shape.
Although Kinney wrote the novel with a mind to movie-levels of character shortcoming/desire/opponents and so on, the screenwriters seem to have changed a few things. (Bear in mind I’m not putting myself through actually watching it):
In the book it is the mother who has the desire. Greg passively goes along with his mother’s plans, garnered from a cutesily named ‘Family Frolic’ magazine. In the film, however, the family has the more specific goal of attending Meemaw’s 90th birthday party, and Greg has his own concrete goal — to derail the route, ending up at a gaming convention.
The birthday party is assumed to be a sombre gathering, due to the birthday person being female and also extremely old. When the boat flies into the swimming pool we are to derive carnivalesque enjoyment from seeing a staid event livened.
In a movie length feature there needs to be more happening. In the book ‘everything that can go wrong has gone wrong’ but in the film there is even more drama e.g. Dad gets the van stuck in mud and ends up spattering everyone trying to push the vehicle out.
Within this overall structure of a comic journey, Jeff Kinney’s books function more like comic books. The Long Haul can also be regarded as a series of vignettes, each following its own complete story structure, linked together by the overarching comic journey of the road trip. If you read with that in mind, you’ll find every single one of the ‘skits’ follows 7 part structure beautifully. I’ll take just one to illustrate. This is the skit starting on page 68, where the family have stopped at a motel. Greg is trying in vain to get to sleep.
Greg is stuck in a cheap motel when he would rather be at home in his own room in his own bed. He is tired. He needs to sleep.
To go to sleep comfortably and with peace and quiet.
Mom and Dad have the bed. (They are also snorers.) Manny has the sofa. These characters have taken the best sleeping positions. The kids from the hot tub also disturb his sleep.
When Greg has a plan, the first plan doesn’t work. Something always goes slightly wrong, which leads him to his next plan. Greg’s problem solving abilities lead him to comic places:
Greg and Rodrick check the closet for a cot of an air mattress but there is nothing.
Rodrick gatehrs up the sofa cushions and makes a bed for himself, turning him into another opponent. (If Rodrick hadn’t got the cushions Greg could have them.)
Greg decides to sleep in the closet, on top of a pile of towels. However, there is a TERRIBLE smell in the closet. He looks around to check a mouse hasn’t died in the vent.
He covers his nose with a washcloth but the smell gets WORSE.
He hears snoring so tries to put in earplugs. But it is dark and he can only find one.
The kids from the hot tub wake him up from the corridor. They are playing on a cleaning cart.
Greg steps out of the motel room to get the kids a piece of his mind. One runs away in tears. The father comes out. Greg runs back into the motel room and chains the door.
There are no ‘self’ revelations in ongoing comedy series. Only audience and character revelations, for example “Oh, he got out of the scrape due to the opponent’s lack of wits. Good.”
Greg has made a successful escape because the father hasn’t worked out which door Greg ducked into.
The father eventually stops pounding the door next to Greg’s and goes back to his own room. Greg hangs up a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on his door in case he comes back. Greg worries all night and does not get a good night’s sleep.
Greg’s unreliable narration and thirst for drama where there is none is one good source of comedy.
Rodrick’s general stupidity provides a lot of comedy, for example locking dinner inside a safe after mistaking it for a microwave. Rodrick’s general stupidity is later subverted when he comes up with a wonderful idea. The technique: Setting Rodrick up as stupid but upending expectations by affording him random strokes of genius. all comic characters can be used in this way. We feel we’ve gotten to know them, and then they surprise us.
Ticking Clock technique. The screenwriters had a big birthday to get to and they couldn’t be late for it. That provided an overarching ticking clock for the film. In the book, Mrs Heffley is taking her boys on a largely unscripted tour of the country, guided only by the low stakes Family Frolic suggestions. To increase tension, there are several gags in which Kinney puts a time limit on a goal. For example, when the father takes an important call from a client and everyone has to be quiet, Manny loses his dummy. Greg knows exactly how long he’s got before Manny starts hollering, shattering the illusion that the father is in his office and not on a family road trip.
This book includes what academics may call ‘intertextuality’ and publishers may call ‘great marketing’ with the mother’s idea to take along a cut out character which is clearly from Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, but which in the book is ‘Underpants Bandits’ by Mik Davies (a close enough palindrome for middle grade readers to get).
Thelma and Louise is an iconic 1991 film, hailed at the time as feminist. I don’t fall into the camp who consider this a feminist film, but it is still one of my all time favourites. I know Thelma and Louise so well it makes an excellent case study in storytelling technique.
While I was writing Thelma and Louise, it was the most fun I had ever had in my life, bar none,” she says. “It was such a pure experience. There was no self-censorship there, there was no second guessing. From a creative standpoint, it was the freest I had ever been in my life. I loved every moment I got to spend time with those characters. Nothing came close to it, including winning all the awards and everything else. As much fun as all that was, it wasn’t as much fun as sitting alone in a crummy office on Vine at 2 in the morning writing that screenplay.
Callie Khouri, who has more recently written Nashville (2012) and the film Mad Money (2008)
Part of the appeal of Thelma & Louise is undoubtedly the ‘hat on a dog’ inversion — women holding up banks and murdering men is simply less usual than if two men were doing the same.
Thelma & Louise and The Early 1990s
Time Magazine asked why this film struck a nerve with the wider culture. This is the film that really got people talking about sexism and Hollywood. Until we saw women on screen, few had really noticed that we hadn’t seen women on screen.
By the time Thelma & Louise was made, Hollywood was one of America’s greatest exports. Perhaps American pop culture remains America’s most successful world export. Ridley Scott is British, but has worked most of his life in America. Perhaps his early years afforded him special insight into how America’s Hollywood has influenced the rest of the world.
Genre Blend and Influences
Myth, Drama, Crime >> Road Movie
A road movie is a mythic journey. The problem with mythic journeys is, they can get a little episodic, in a bad way. Just one damn thing after another. But when you have opponents stuck in a car together, that makes the story take a more linear, constrained shape. Thelma and Louise also gets around the ‘one outside opponent after another’ by having the Brad Pitt character turn up more than once.
There are various subcategories of road movies, as well:
I mark the signature of classic and contemporary Westerns, sundry types of road film (doomed/outlaw/lovers subgenre in particular), and the seventies “buddy” movie.
This film has many elements of an outlaw film, which are obvious and stand out:
flight from police
high speed car chase
a revenge fantasy (True Grit is an example of a revenge outlaw story)
Classic outlaw movies tend to have deadpan humour. Examples: Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The humour in outlaw films doesn’t tend to suggest self-awareness and growth, but in Thelma & Louise, the classic screwball humour is there to show her character arc. Examples: when Thelma acknowledges to J.D. that her husband is an ‘asshole’, the theatrical robbery speech parroted from J.D., asking for a couple of bottles of Wild Turkey, the wisecrack with the state trooper who pulls them over, the prank of locking the trooper in the trunk).
Thelma and Louise as characters are more like a screwball couple defying authority than they are like outlaws who have a problem with society in general. They are like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby.
But Thelma & Louise also includes many elements of screwball comedy:
the theme of escaping the constraints of authority for the freedom of the open road
You might describe this film as a ‘road screwball’ similar to It Happened One Night (1934)
Thelma & Louise has been described as a picaresque tragi-comedy. Picaresque relates to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero, or two heroines in this case. The classic (“original”) example of a picaresque story is Gil Blas, a novel by Alain-René Lesage published between 1715 and 1735.
The previous year, Susan Sarandon had played a similar character — also a waitress, also rebellious and sharp-tongued, in White Palace.
The character of Thelma Dickinson is similar to Lola in Come Back Little Sheba, played by Shirley Booth in 1952.
The trio in the Ford Thunderbird in Thelma & Louise reminds me of the trio in the Lincoln Capri Convertible in A Long Hot Summer. Driving, we have the uptight woman, next to her the carefree woman, and in the backseat the bad boy they picked up on the side of the road. I don’t know if A Long Hot Summer is a named influence on Thelma & Louise, but I bet the writer watched that earlier movie at some point.
The ‘tough girl’ main characters are also seen in Silence of the Lambs, Sleeping with the Enemy, Gloria, Mortal Thoughts and Ridley Scott’s own Alien. We see these characters in various slasher films and rape-revenge movies from the late 1970s through the 1980s.
Marsha Kinder has pointed out strong similarities between Thelma & Louise and the 1979 Swiss film Messidor by Alain Tanner.
They are both road movies
About a pair of women
Who abandon their traditional place in patriarchal culture
They leave for a trivial reason, from the city into the countryside
The turning point comes with an attempted rape
Which the women avert and avenge with violence
The Anagnorisis is a momentary communion with nature that makes them realise there’s no going back.
They die at the end. Thelma & Louise begins where Messidor ends — in a similar small-town restaurant where Jeanne and Marie of Messidor have their final showdown with the law.
The setting is mythic, and delineates the nature of their final entrapment.
Thelma & Louise are already friends but Messidor is about two strangers who meet on the road
The women in Messidor are younger in years (18 and 19)
In Thelma & Louise the main characters are rebelling against media culture. In Messidor, the primary rebellion is against respectable bourgeois institutions like the patriarchal family.
Jeanne and Marie of Messidor never have a clear destination. Thelma and Louise are on their way to Mexico.
Thelma and Louise take a romantic leap into ‘feminist’ mythology (a gender flip on the outlaw movie tradition) whereas the Swiss outlaws are never empowered like that. They don’t have a glamorous shiny convertible. They don’t have exuberant energy and good humour. They are hitchhikers.
Narrative Organisation Of Thelma & Louise
To summarise what Brian Henderson has said about this film, in some ways, Thelma & Louise is noteworthy for what it doesn’t have:
Here’s what it does have, and what distinguishes itself from other films:
The story is divided into distinct time spaces. The first period covers the time up until the killing of Harlan. Now they are suspended in time — their relation to both past and future is uncertain.
At this point the film ‘fissures’ — we now see a parallel montage which switches back and forth between investigating police and fleeing main characters. This structure continues until the very end when they meet face to face.
The audience isn’t really let in on the timing of any given scene. We have no idea how much time is supposed to have elapsed. (We do get a few clues but those are retrospective e.g. when Thelma says it was 4:00 am when she first tried to reach Daryl by phone, this is long after that happened.)
Normally, film makers make use of night and day scenes to orient the audience in time but these women are driving through the night, so we don’t get that over the whole film. We only see a couple of nights. We don’t see all the others.
The scenes with the detectives are equally indeterminate, time-wise.
The information given in each thread fills in ellipsis in the other thread. The film-makers are therefore given the flexibility to break away from Thelma and Louise at any time they want to and allows much storytelling freedom.
There is a thematic purpose to all this: Thelma and Louise are themselves living in a divided temporality — constantly looking behind them, constantly looking ahead. Listen for how often you hear ‘Go!’ in the dialogue.
Bear in mind, the crosscut technique does not work in all stories, even though it works in this one. Does it work in a film such as Cold Mountain? I found Cold Mountain really slow to read, to the point that I couldn’t finish it. I do enjoy the film adaptation, but probably not because it was crosscut.
Of course the thematic point of the crosscut is that the juxtaposition of the two story lines creates a larger point through comparison. But here that comparison remains on the broadest level, showing that the two leads are equal in the obstacles they must overcome for their love. But the specific scenes where the crosscuts occur are largely wasted.
This film almost overcomes its foundation structural shortcoming through a number of excellent scenes. But then it commits one of the great sins of storytelling, the false ending. When an audience invests two and a half hours of their time watching two people struggle through hell to be together, you better have a profound reason to kill one of them at the end.
Thelma & Louise is a perfect example of story structure. Some people think of stories — especially films — in terms of three act structure.
As the film starts, the two women are embarking on a camping trip. Stopping off at a roadside bar is a very clear step into a world different from their own. As they both start to let their hair down, they begin to shed more of their former selves — but this is drama; every action has a consequence. Thelma attracts the attentions of a local redneck who brutally assaults her. The crisis is precipitated. Given the choice to kill him or warn him off, Louise — provoked — shoots him in the head and they flee from the scene. Both are thrown into a completely alien world — into the woods again.
John Yorke, Into The Woods
Anagnorisis, need, desire
When we first meet Thelma and Louise, they are living in darkness, mortgage holders on a conservative American society.
John Yorke, Into The Woods
If either of the two central characters is the main character, it is Thelma. Thelma has more of a character arc, whereas Louise starts off strong and stays strong, though there is room in the story for Thelma to take over, as explained by Howard Suber in The Power Of Film:
In the first half of Thelma and Louise, the older Louise uses her knowledge and experience to lead. Halfway through the film, however, she succumbs to despair, and Thelma becomes the leader.
The Power Of Film
Thelma needs to learn to live outside the control of her husband.
Thelma desires a fishing trip with her older best friend.
Her anagnorisis will be that she is better off without her no-good husband and she can do amazing things under her own steam.
Thelma has only been with one man and we find out when she picks up the thieving hitchhiker that she has been with him since she was 14.
Louise had something horrible happen to her in Texas and refuses to go back. Thelma guesses that it was rape.
Much attention is given to landscape; the imitation Hollywood motels off the highways; a conglomerate of oil wells in dusty twilights; and faces of aged, displaced people, seen briefly in doorways and windows, remnants of lost dreams (particularly for Louise, who notices them). The eternal desert monoliths add to the isolated status of the women’s flight toward the border. […]
So much of the early part of the film is set in familiar post-Hopper (Edward or Dennis) interiors: roadside cafes, motels, and crowded apartments; Western space, with all is potential for self-enhancement and beginning again, fallen into the sordidness of small-town limitation. The bar where the adventure starts looms like an emblem of fallen romanticism hardly up to the already postheroic Urban Cowboy. In the cowboy bootheel slamming of the communal dancing, like some chorus-line crossover of Michael Kidd and Albert Speer, men and women alike wear all the paraphernalia of fantasy western individualism.
In this atmosphere of the ersatz and the fallen, the attempted rape of Thelma in the parking lot and Louise’s killing of the rapist cuts through like an icy blast, announcing the violence and brutality under the celluloid-thin myths of self-sufficiency and heroism.
I would add that those desert monoliths emphasise how small they are, and how vulnerable. Annie Proulx makes heavy use of similarly massive landscapes to underscore the impermanence of individual human lives, contrasted against the thread of generations. Annie Proulx also makes heavy use of the difference between ‘true’ country people and try-hard blow-ins from the inner-city, dressing up in cowboy clothes, thinking they’re actual cowboys.
As they escape, when the film truly hits the road, the promise of space and freedom lures them on. But the camera still continues to stress the choking inevitability of the world they are trying to escape, not jus the massive machinery, oil drilling equipment, and trucks that constantly threaten to squeeze them out of our vision, but even the seemingly more benevolent spaces and spires of John Ford’s Monument Valley.
The setting itself is meta. We’re watching Thelma and Louise in a Hollywood movie while Thelma imagines herself inside a Hollywood movie:
It’s easy enough in many Ford films to point out how narratives that are supposed to cover hundreds of miles all seem to take place within the confines of Monument Valley. But when similar things happen in Thelma & Louise, the effect is not the creation of a special world, but a sense of being walled in by expectations and walled in by fate, like the grainy television screen catching Thelma’s robber of the convenience store, making her “famous”.
As they’ve probably seen in hundreds of films themselves, they head for Mexico.
What the hell kind of route is Louise driving? A detailed explanation of the American setting and stopovers can be found over at Twelve Mile Circle.
Khouri avoided fragmentation in Thelma & Louise with the Brad Pitt character, who turned up over and over again. If that guy had been separate people it would have felt fragmented to the audience. The masterful thing about that particular thread is that J.D. has a good motivation for following the women. (A couple, actually.)
There are often lots of storms in road trip movies, to the point where a storm is cliche. This film doesn’t have storms but it does have a lot of rain. Pathetic fallacy. It never rains on Thelma and Louise themselves, however. It’s raining back home where the men are, and J.D. gets rained on, but Louise and Thelma stay dry inside their convertible.
Shortcoming & Need (Problem)
Thelma needs to escape for a while from her controlling, dismissive husband of many years. But more deeply, she needs to learn to believe in herself and in her best friend (rather than in her useless husband).
Thelma doesn’t stand up to anyone, not even her own life partner. She can’t even bring herself to tell him she’s going away for the weekend, leaving him a note instead, and a frozen dinner in the microwave.
The older, cynical, street-wise Louise makes a perfect companion to the more vulnerable Thelma. Notice all the ways in which these characters are set up as contrasts:
Louise’s tidy and organised kitchen versus Thelma’s haphazard kitchen with a fridge full of half-eaten Snickers bars
The way they pack — Thelma throws everything in (including that Chekhov’s Gun whereas Louise is more thoughtful and logical about it)
Louise’s version of the world around them is totally realistic, and her continued exasperations with Thelma’s naivete become bitter commentaries on the failure of her own hope and a particular world-weariness regarding any future happiness for either of them.
Why did the film-makers give Louise the ghost of having been raped in Texas? Probably to justify all the immoral actions she takes throughout the film, including shooting dead an almost-rapist. In other words, this backstory gives Louise psychological validity to her killing. Leo Braudy has proposed another reason: The storytellers want to avoid sending these characters to Texas, because the role of Texas in Westerns and road films is as a ‘wide open genre space’ as solution to characters’ problems.
Thelma’s desire is to gain a little independence from her husband, but by taking the mini-step of going fishing with her friend for the weekend.
A sleazebag at the bar where they stop tries to rape Thelma. Louise shoots him dead.
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner suggests that there is a greater dramatic impact in having a character get herself into trouble than in having trouble land upon her, especially if she gets herself into trouble for good reason.
Louise has just saved Thelma from violent rape but this is just the beginning of their troubles.
Here’s the thing about this confrontation as an inciting incident: This scene has created what writers call the ‘obligatory scene’. (John Yorke prefers the term ‘obligatory act’.) Now that Louise has shot this guy with a gun, the audience must see a big struggle between Louise and the law. The audience won’t feel the story is finished until they see a showdown between the women and the police.
Thelma and Louise are each other’s strongest ally, but their relationship doesn’t start off all that close at the beginning. They will grow closer as the story progresses.
Most of the world is against them, mostly men.
Darryl is Thelma’s first opponent — the one she’s running away from in the first place. Darryl has been described as a perfect example of the Playboy Philosopher archetype.
Harlan is a classic redneck type.
J.D. is a false ally opponent, who makes off with their money and therefore leaves the women desperate and willing to push the envelope.
Subverting audience expectations in a cop drama, even the detective is on their side. In fact, he’s an opponent, for the purposes of plot. But this is the character who is most closely aligned to us, the audience. We see what he sees, as he sees it. We know the women have done wrong, but can’t help but be impressed by them anyhow, just like him. In the final scene when the detective is running for dear life towards the women’s car, trying to get them not to drive off that cliff, that’s how the audience feels too, after spending an entire movie with these characters.
We don’t know much about Louise’s boyfriend Jimmy, but we do see a glimpse of his violent tendencies when he is turned down then overturns furniture.
There is a strong opponent in this story and there doesn’t need to be any mystery, but the mystery of what happened to Louise in Texas is introduced. Thelma basically confirms our suspicions near the end.
Attack by ally
This happens earlier than usual, with the cafe scene in which Thelma has just been assaulted. Louise almost blames Thelma for getting them both into this terrible mess.
J.D. is an unambiguous example of this. The clever thing about the scripting is that he is upfront about his thieving, and still steals from Thelma and Louise. He unwittingly tutors Thelma in armed robbery with the intention only of showing off. Did he really rob a petrol station using those words, or are those words what he wishes he’d said? Thelma, being part impressionable, part naive, quotes him verbatim nonetheless.
The audience sees him before he is properly introduced. Thelma trips over him. He’s overly apologetic, but since she is still traumatised and temporarily suspicious, Thelma doesn’t reply.
Changed desire and motive
They now want to stay out of trouble with the law. The fishing trip has been abandoned. Louise wants to travel to Mexico. Thelma doesn’t know what she’s going to do.
First revelation and decision
They need money. Louise decides to call her musician boyfriend.
Louise will call back in an hour and the boyfriend will tell her which bank to pick her money up at in Oklahoma.
As for Thelma, she calls her husband who is annoyed that she left without his permission. She tells him to ‘go fuck’ himself, which we sense is the first time she’s ever said such a thing to him. This is the start of her character arc.
Opponent’s plan and main counterattack
J.D. plans to rob the women so he asks to hitch a ride with them since he’s a student and has no way back to school after his ride fell through. That doesn’t work at first, but does eventually. Then he turns up yet again (in the rain — deliberately not standing under the eaves, I notice, to look even more pathetic) to have sex with the vulnerable Thelma, who he may or may not have planned to rob from the get go.
We learn that all of Louise’s life savings are gone. What’s left to do now, when they don’t even have money for petrol?
Thelma feels responsible for the money going missing so she tells Louise ‘Don’t you worry about the money’. She is newly hardened and resolved to get money by robbing a store. Or, as TV Tropes would put it, she Took A Level In Badass.
Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive
The successful and easy robbery has a galvanising effect on Thelma. She feels she can do anything and is having a good time for the first time in many years. I’m reminded of the elation experienced by Walter White just after he ‘breaks bad’.
Second revelation and decision
In Thelma and Louise, Thelma initially refuses to accompany her friend to Mexico. Only after a patronizing, misogynistic phone call from her husband forty minutes into the film does she commit to the journey.
John Yorke, Into The Woods
When Thelma calls home and immediately realises the police are there the women realise just how much trouble they’re in.
Louise has been raped (or similar) in Texas, and the anger she holds about this would have motivated her shooting Thelma’s rapist in the carpark.
TV Tropes calls this a Noodle Incident.
The Noodle Incident is something from the past that is sometimes referred to but never explained, with the implication that it’s just too ludicrous for words, and the reality that any explanation would fall short of audience expectations. Questions about it are often met with “You Don’t Want To Know…“
In an academic paper I saw the phrasing: ‘Callie Khouri’s script also enhances the film’s ambiguous openness for interpretion by sharply scanting information about the protagonists’ prior lives, except for a few bold strokes.
This pretty much sums up academia vs TV Tropes — academics tend to assume the creators meant what they did, whereas the contributors to TV Tropes seem to suggest storytellers construct stories out of Lego blocks, and that there’s nothing new under the sun.
TV Tropes also points out that this noodle incident trope is generally used by trickster characters.
Don’t be surprised if it was caused by a trickster-type character. If there’s a noodle incident and a trickster happens to be in the main cast, the trickster is almost always responsible for it, or at least blamed for it.
Louise is not the stock trickster character but she is certainly an extended version of it. So is Thelma — they are constantly getting themselves out of tricky situations by doing underhanded things. Audiences love main characters who do this.
Third revelation and decision
Talking to the detective again on the phone, Louise is told that they won’t get into Mexico. She puts two and two together and realises that Thelma has told J.D. where they were headed, and that J.D. must have told the cops.
Gate, gauntlet, visit to death
Louise gets pulled over by a cop, who knows all about them. Thelma is now given the opportunity to show the audience how much she has genuinely changed. Whereas before she was simply parroting the words of J.D. when robbing the bank, we now get to see that she can hold her own as a criminal. We see her act calmly and confidently as she gets the cop to climb into his trunk.
The same scene is used in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. When the two guys are pulled over by a cop we think, they’re certainly done for now. There’s also a cop-pulling-over scene in Little Miss Sunshineand another inNo Country For Old Men. It’s very common in road movies, and interesting to see the various ways in which the writers get their characters out of this situation.
I’ve always thought that truck explosion was overdone. I mean, there are a lot of stock characters in this movie, and Thelma’s husband is almost overplayed, but the guy who plays the vile truck driver really does seem overacted. But there is a very good storytelling reason for that very Hollywood truck explosion — it makes for a great big struggle scene. The explosion, of course, symbolises their entire mess.
Anagnorisis and Moral decision
Now that Thelma and Louise have become emancipated and liberated they are truly free.
This part of the film has been left out with the express purpose of leaving the audience in a state of shock. At this point there is what TV Tropes call a:
Cerebus Callback: Thelma and Louise take a polaroid photo of themselves at the start of their trip and stick it to the rear view mirror in the car. The photo flies off the mirror just as the car goes plunging into the Grand Canyon.
Scott is a formidable entertainer, but he lacks Edwards’ or Altman’s subversive boldness (at their best). His critiques are increasingly vitiated by tidy “with the grain” resolutions (in this sense, Thelma & Louise’s unhappy ending is as problematic as Blade Runner’s infamous happy ending).
Thelma and Louise launch themselves into space and turn, not into magic heroines who manage to land on the other side, or angelic marthrs who crash into the canyon, but into a brightly colored magazine illustration. This last image echoes, as many have noted, Redford and Newman at the end of Butch Cassidy. But I think more of the freeze-framed Jean-Pierre Leaud at the end of 400 Blows, faced with the threatening freedom of the sea. Not gun-toting heroes turning into legends, but hand-holding heroines of thwarted energy turning into a myth of blood, escaping the frame that confines them.
Some critics have compared the Grand Canyon to a vagina, or ‘the great vaginal wonder of the world’.
Are you writing a road trip story for younger readers? I recently watched Amanda at Book Riot talk about a book called Done Dirt Cheap, which she describes as being ‘a cross between Sons of Anarchy and Thelma & Louise‘. It’s interesting to see books being promoted using films as examples. I guess this is because there are so many books in the world it’s hard to find anything that everyone has read, whereas there are a few tent pole films which almost everyone knows something about, even if they haven’t seen them. It’s not a bad marketing strategy.
American Honey is a 2016 coming-of-age film with some similarities to Thelma and Louise. A naive, disenfranchised 18-year-old is recruited to join a travelling band of magazine sales people. The young crew is travelling around America selling (or scamming) magazines. Like Thelma and Louise, the female main character is a rare example — since the road trip symbolises freedom and women are rarely afforded that. Like Thelma and Louise, Star gets up to mischief on her trip, and her main problem is a man. Unlike Thelma, Star has no older female to set her straight — only an older female character to set her wrong. If you loved Thelma & Louise, I recommend American Honey.