I didn’t understand Thelma & Louise. Or rather, I didn’t understand why Thelma & Louise had the impact it did. It’s not that I don’t admire Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. I do, wholeheartedly. It’s not that Ridley Scott is a director incapable of bringing a unique vision to the screen. Neither Alien nor Blade Runner slip easily from memory. And surely it’s not that the story behind Thelma & Louise was the same tired old Hollywood formula chase & crash & burn……Was it?……Uh, well, yes, it was. Is having two strong actresses reprise roles usually played by Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson (or Burt Reynolds??) truly a significant step forward in women’s liberation? Has there been a change of content, or of bodies? From Fatal Attraction to Aliens 3 to Basic Instinct to Hand That Rocks the Cradle to Single While Female to the recent remake of Bresson’s La Femme Nikita starring Bridget Fonda, Hollywood has gifted its recent high profile actresses with undeniable power—power to initiate violence, and power to respond violently. Thanks a lot. From guns’n women to women with guns (& ice picks & axes &….). Yes, this is the evolution in consciousness we’ve all been waiting for.
There are alternatives. Edward Zwick’s 1992 film Leaving Normal is Thelma & Louise without the shuck. In the case of Leaving Normal, it’s Marianne and Darly, and Charles Bronson wouldn’t have looked comfortable in either role. This is my favourite road picture since James Taylor and Dennis Wilson hit the Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) in a’55 Chevy with a 454, since Harry Dean Stanton walked out of the desert in a red baseball cap and the strains of Ry Cooder’s guitar in Paris, Texas (1983), and since Gary Farmer turned a beat-up ’64 Buick into a “medicine vehicle” in Powwow Highway (1989). Both Marianne (Meg Tilly) and Darly (Christine Lahti) are on the road because none of the decisions they’ve made in their lives has led them to any place they can call home. Marianne is a vulnerable young woman with a history of “incompletes.” Incomplete college career. Incomplete nursing career. Incomplete army career. Two incomplete marriages. When she says of college, “I didn’t know why I was there”, she’s describing her whole life. She can’t stop moving and hoping for something better around the next turn in the road because the moment she stops moving or hoping, her past will bury her.
Darly is ten years older, with a more colourful vocabulary and the enthusiastic conviction, again drawn from long experience, that life can suck. At one point, she reminisces that her longest stable relationship was with a boyfriend back in the 5th and 6th grade. She’s still running from choices she made ten years ago. Where Marianne’s desperate optimism always seems to leave her stranded on the highway with neither bags nor destination, Darly’s cynicism always ensures she has her bags half-packed and the keys in the ignition. Her vision is summed up in the Huggy Bear bedtime story she grudgingly tells to Marianne’s sister’s two children—a seriously, hilariously bent fairy tale that will probably have them in analysis for the rest of their adult lives.
Together, the two women are a recipe for disaster and they both know it. Rather than risking adding to an unblemished record of wrong choices, they decide to play it safe and leave as much of their journey to chance as possible. Their goal is a house in Alaska which Darly has inherited from her ex-husband, now deceased and unlamented. Leaving Normal differs from many road movies in that what happens when Marianne and Darly finally reach the road’s end is a healing experience. Something to do with Happy Hardwaring and the aurora borealis and a one-in-ten-thousand chance. A happy ending and a damn fine one. And of course, Darly tries her best to throw it away. She’d rather be in another movie, where the road never ends, destinations are mirages, and you’re never responsible for what you do (betraying a friend, abandoning a child) because you’ll never pass through that town or that person’s life again.
Leaving Normal is as fine a film as it is largely due to the strength of the performances by Meg Tilly and Christine Lahti. Those performances aside, however, the movie is also generous with two other common features of road stories: colourful supporting characters and great scenery. We meet Leon (Maury Chaykin), who starts driving semis after 23 years of marriage because he’s desperate to fulfill some adolescent fantasy of sowing wild oats (or at least one wild oat); Harry (Lenny Von Dohlen), who cries over Of Mice and Men, writes poetry, and winds up a truck driver; and 66 (Patrika Darbo) and the Spice King of Alberta, of whom 111 say no more. Filmed in places like Yoho and Banff National Parks; Ryder, Alaska; Stewart, B.C. and Champion, Alberta, it’s no surprise that the backdrops are gorgeous. Perhaps Leaving Normal should carry some kind of warning to the effect that it makes the viewer want to throw a tent in the car, throw planning to the winds, and see a little more of this endlessly beautiful land in which we live. Director Zwick also takes some interesting liberties with reality; he uses special effects on landscape instead of machinery to create panoramic shots with a touch of gentle surrealism. (Early in the film he also uses time-lapse photography to create an “ideal” Greyhound Bus ride—a nostalgic composite for those of us who have crossed the country with people sleeping on our shoulders, who have slept on other people’s shoulders, who have listened to strangers’ life stories & sermons & passionate concerns in awed wonder.)
Leaving Normal won’t disappoint. And as the old guys in Ryder would say, “Happy Hardware!”
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
[I haven’t been able to find a copy of Leaving Normal to give it a second look. I hate it when that happens, but I’ll keep looking.]