The Trucker Scene from Thelma & Louise (1991)

One of the most iconic moments from Thelma & Louise (1991) is when they surprise a lewd trucker by shooting up his haul after he refuses to apologize for being rude and mistreating women.

It’s deep in the third act when fate and poor decisions have pushed the two characters to full revenge mode. It is also the moment that appeared in the trailers (most likely because it allowed Ridley Scott to flex his action directing skills). One of the more interesting and puzzling things about this soundtrack is that the song that accompanies it, “Better Not Look Down” by B.B. King, was originally supposed to accompany the final sequence as the T-Bird drives into the abyss of the Grand Canyon. It was, after all, the song that inspired Callie Khouri’s award-winning screenplay.

According to Claudia Gorbman, it was intended as a celebration of their lives and as a pretty blatant pun: better not look down as your car falls. Of course, this song didn’t accompany that iconic final scene because nearly everyone agreed that it was too grotesque. Its use at a different point in the film’s third act is telling. The characters have nearly completed their respective transformations. They have shed their makeup, their skin is bronzed by the dirt and sun, and they appear in an exhausted and emotionally raw state as they make their drive through the Southwest. They hear the music from their car radio and bounce along to it in more frenetic movements than the Temptations sing-along from an earlier point in the film. The way that Thelma, in particular, moves to “Better Not Look Down” is a clear contrast from the more relaxed responses to music that pepper this story. Once they signal to the trucker that they are pulling over, the song continues as non-diegetic music and accompanies as the camera focuses on a reflection of the trucker in the shiny hubcap. He celebrates what he thinks is his lucky day through a brief twist dance move. After they shoot up the truck, Hans Zimmer’s blues scoring enters as Thelma triumphantly grabs the trucker’s cap and both women scream in delight.

Despite the scene’s depiction of an emasculated trucker, the music helps spectators root for the two doomed heroines. How can you not celebrate their misplaced vengeance when there is an upbeat blues playing? Blues is a genre normally coded as masculine due to its use of guitar solos. Yet, in this scene it functions differently; its beats, female choir, and lack of V-I resolution (and telos) help it work as expressions of the characters’ rage against the patriarchy with the trucker as proxy. Some could choose to ignore that larger framework and just poke fun at the trucker – he obviously isn’t very bright. That they perform such an act of violence as women also manages to help this film also reach an even broader audience (hence its use in the film’s promotion): filmgoers enjoy their violence and explosions.

This film was extraordinarily popular despite the fact that the U.S. was deep in the midst of a backlash against feminism. It struck a nerve and went on to be nominated for 6 Academy Awards (with Sarandon and Davis competing with each other for Best Actress). Even though some complained that the film celebrated violence against men at gunpoint, the scoring of scenes like this managed to win over a huge swath of the movie-going public.

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