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Regional Interests

Thirty Years After ‘Thelma & Louise,’ Feminist Revenge Movie Endings Still Suck

Spoiler alert: You’re about to hear, in detail, the endings of the movies Promising Young Woman and Things Heard and Seen. If you don’t want to, please leave now.

I’m about to talk about the ending of Thelma & Louise too, but if you still haven’t seen that, this probably isn’t the essay for you. The movie turned 30 on May 24 and is, at this point, woven deep into the American consciousness. Who could ever forget the image of the brand-new outlaws driving that ’66 T-Bird into the Grand Canyon, hands locked together in united defiance? Women who would rather die a fiery death on their own terms than live under the thumbs of any more men. It’s an iconic ending to an unerringly feminist movie.

And I absolutely hate it.

Allow me to give my ire some context. In Thelma & Louise, the titular characters are on the run after Louise murders a man who is in the process of violently raping Thelma. (We find out later that Louise had, some years earlier, herself survived a deeply traumatizing sexual assault.) After Louise’s life savings are stolen by a hitchhiker who Thelma spends the night with, Thelma robs a convenience store in order to get gas money. The friends then blow up the truck of a man who is persistently sexually harassing them as they desperately try to reach Mexico.

These outlaws aren’t just easy to root for, they offer wish fulfillment to every woman watching. Then, after a few days of living free for the first time in their entire lives, and discovering strength they never knew they had, they just… die.

Imagine, for a moment, how you’d feel if, at the end of The Shawshank Redemption, instead of making it to Zihuatanejo, Andy and Red just died instead? Right at the moment when they were almost free, no less. Well, that’s how I feel every time I watch Thelma & Louise. I also think about this every time I watch True Romance and see that even Clarence and Alabama Worley got to their beach in time. Why is it, I wonder, that Thelma and Louise are denied the happy ending granted to other pop culture outlaws?

Two movies released in the last six months offer some answers. The first is Things Heard and Seen, a supernatural thriller set in 1980 and starring Amanda Seyfried. The second is Promising Young Woman, one of the most talked about movies of the last year, starring Carey Mulligan. Like Thelma & Louise, both of these films are driven by feminist themes. And like Thelma & Louise, they both end with our heroines dying brutal, untimely deaths.

In Things Heard and Seen, Seyfried’s character, Catherine, abandons a rewarding career and relocates to upstate New York at the behest of her (cheating, gaslighting) husband, George. The two move into an old farmhouse where supernatural events occur nightly. Catherine soon comes to find that the house has borne witness to two separate incidents of femicide at the hands of violent husbands.

After seeing that Catherine is having a hard time advocating for herself, Catherine’s assertive new friend Justine invites her to a women’s group. George objects to this kind of female solidarity. Then, after Justine finds out that George is having an affair and that he got his job through fraudulent means, he runs her car off the road, leaving her in a coma. When Catherine finally reaches her breaking point and readies herself to leave him, George drugs Catherine and kills her with an axe.

One of the most startling things about this conclusion is that the viewer is supposed to find some semblance of satisfaction in the aftermath of Catherine’s brutal murder. We see her spirit join forces with the ghost of the last woman murdered in the house, to make sure that George doesn’t get away. They wake Justine from her coma so she can tell police what George did. Then they guide a sailboat carrying an escaping George into the eye of a storm, and to his certain death.

Writer/director Shari Springer Berman told Decider that she viewed the movie’s message as empowering. “I was excited to make a film where we showed a woman trying to find her voice, and to get her voice with the help of some very unexpected allies.”

That’s all well and good, but in Things Heard and Seen—just as in Thelma & Louise—the punishment for a woman seeking liberation is death. The fact that the movie asks us to celebrate this outcome because it results in the punishment of a murderer is fairly astonishing. Even more so because it’s exactly what happens at the end of Promising Young Woman.

For the first half of its narrative, Promising Young Woman—also like Thelma & Louise—offers wish fulfillment for women. When we meet her, Cassie is already wide awake to life’s misogynistic realities. She has been since her best friend Nina’s rape and subsequent suicide in college. Now, in a defiant expression of vengeance, Cassie goes to clubs alone, acts inebriated and waits for a “nice guy” to help her. Once these men try to take physical advantage of her (and they always do), Cassie snaps awake and teaches them a lesson.

One of Promising Young Woman’s great successes is in its portrayal of predators. These are not outwardly creepy, drooling boogie men. They are men who look and act, on the surface at least, like people you know. Driving the point home further is the fact that each of them is played by a beloved comic actor—Sam Richardson, Adam Brody, and Max Greenfield all appear. This, the movie quietly informs the men watching, is why women live in fear. It’s impossible to tell the difference between the nice guys and the would-be rapists until it’s too late.

It is when Cassie tries to exact revenge on Al, the man who raped Nina, that the narrative goes wildly awry. Al manages to get free from Cassie’s handcuffs and murders her; smothering her to death before callously burning her body. It’s a brutal and deeply disappointing end for a realistically flawed character who simply wanted to feel some semblance of justice in her lifetime. Similar to Things Heard and Seen, the viewer is supposed to find subsequent relief from the fact that Cassie’s death sets off a chain of events that results in the arrest of Nina’s rapist—this time, for murder.

Variety called Promising Young Woman “the most audacious, feminist movie of the year.” And the New York Times declared that problematic ending “the movie’s most authentic moment… Promising Young Woman isn’t a revenge fantasy so much as a sad tale of warped grief and blazing fury.”

Last December, director Emerald Fennel told Harper’s Bazaar: “It was the only ending that felt real to me … That’s not to say it’s not incredibly devastating and grueling to watch. But I just couldn’t see it any other way. I wish I could! I wish I could have let myself, and everybody else, off the hook, because there is, of course, a hypothetical alternative ending to this movie that is incredibly satisfying.”

And Fennel made a conscious decision not to give it to us. Because when it comes to revenge movies, women aren’t ever truly allowed off the hook. Traditional rape-revenge movies—think I Spit on Your Grave, and yes, even 2017’s much-lauded Revenge—are either too exploitative or too triggering to provide many women in the audience a real escape. Enough is too long of a slog for too quick of a payoff. And Olivia Wilde’s A Vigilante provides some catharsis in the story arc, but is so relentlessly bleak throughout, it’s not something you’d ever stage a girls’ night around.

It has taken Hollywood three decades to give women another revenge spree movie we could have a little fun with. But just as Thelma & Louise refused to allow our heroines to get away with it, even the candy-colored, sometimes comedic Promising Young Woman denied us as well.

Women don’t need realistic endings to feminist revenge movies; we need endings that give us a respite from the frightening statistics about rape and intimate partner violence and injustice that swirl in our brains on a loop. That we still haven’t been granted that relief, even three decades after Thelma & Louise won the Oscar for best screenplay, isn’t just depressing, it’s an indication of how much further we still have to go.

Copyright 2021 KQED