Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallée’s film version of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir, hits DVD and Blu-ray today, and is well worth your time — both on its own merits and as part of the fascinating and ongoing history of the female road movie. While tales of the open road often focus on male buddies (Easy Rider) or lovers on the run (Badlands, True Romance, Natural Born Killers), some of our favorite road movies track the physical and psychological journeys of women. Here are a few examples.
Though occasionally hobbled by the male gaze of its director and screenwriter, this chronicle of Strayed’s 1100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail is a visceral and often powerful piece of road filmmaking, deftly combining the physical hardships of such a journey (I just had a toenail flashback, and I really need it to get out of my brain) with the psychological reassembly and repair she undertakes along the way. Witherspoon’s Cheryl encounters some dangers, both real and exaggerated, along the way, but ultimately no one can do as much harm to our protagonist as she’s capable of doing to herself.
Thelma and Louise
Still the gold standard for women-on-the-road movies, Ridley Scott’s 1991 action drama was both a great movie and a big hit, thanks in no small part to the conversations it sparked about female empowerment, gender politics, violence, justice, how we perceive the women in our lives, and how we perceive the women we see on screen. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis have rarely been better as two friends who hit the road for a getaway that turns into an escape (from a crime, and from their lives); Callie Khouri’s screenplay remains as fresh and thoughtful 20 years on (and, sadly, about as unusual).
When this comedy/drama hit theaters in spring of 1992, most reviewers dismissed it out of hand as a Thelma and Louise rip-off, perhaps understandably; it, too, was a story of two women who’d had enough and hit the road. But it’s got a style of its own, with the great (and perpetually underrated) Christine Lahti and Meg Tilly turning in vibrant performances under the sure hand of director Ed Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall), who fills the frame with the kind of colorful, memorable hit-and-run supporting characters that road movies live or die by.
Boys on the Side
A few reviewers also drew comparisons between Thelma and Herbert Ross’ 1995 road drama, concerning as it does a group of women (Whoopi Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker, and Drew Barrymore) fleeing an out-of-control encounter with an abusive man. And the movie even makes that comparison itself, with Goldberg telling her car-mates, “I am not going over a cliff with you two, so just forget it.” But Boys ultimately makes its own way, thanks to a funny and warm screenplay by Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) and the marvelous performances of the trio at its center, who create an utterly believable and memorable bond on their journey.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Probably the rowdiest and still one of the best, Russ Meyer’s 1965 exploitation cult classic follows three tough-as-nails, go-go dancing thrill seekers as they flee a killing (with kidnappee in tow) and hide out on a ranch. Filled with fast cars, casual violence, and provocative gender play, it jump-started Meyer’s career and remains an inimitable slice of B-movie perfection.
Ambushed at her wedding and left for dead, The Bride (Uma Thurman) treks to Tokyo, California, Texas, and Mexico to take out those responsible. True to writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s well-documented influences, that black-and-white Volume 2 prologue, with our hero behind the wheel of a convertible (and in front of a back projection), detailing her mission to the strains of a decidedly Pussycat-esque score, is pure road movie goodness.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
Kill Bill wasn’t Thurman’s first time on the road, either; back in 1993, she fronted Gus Van Sant’s adaptation of Tom Robbins’ 1976 novel. She took on the iconic role of Sissy Hankshaw, a hitchhiker with an enormous advantage: her abnormally large thumbs, which help take her all across this great land of delicious weirdos. A massive critical and commercial failure at the time of its release, Cowgirls has become a bit of a cult fave in recent years; it’s weird and disconnected and kind of a mess, but it certainly isn’t boring.
The Sugarland Express
Most lovers-on-the-run movies put the male half in the driver’s seat, with the female half all but a hood ornament, on hand to provide support, companionship, and sex. Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature flips that script, with heroine Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn, never better) calling the shots in the escape-turned-kidnapping-turned-media-circus at the story’s center. It’s a smart, fast, loopy movie, with its director proving more adept at telling a female-centric story than you might expect from his subsequent filmography.
Manny and Lo
Another tale of escape and kidnapping, but this time with a decidedly younger twist, as the titular sisters — one of them 11, the other 16 — break free from their depressing foster homes to make a go of it on their own, picking up an ultimately sympathetic baby-store clerk along the way. A modest but effective road drama, worth extra scrutiny now for director Lisa Krueger’s savvy eye in casting an unknown actress named Scarlett Johansson as 11-year-old Manny.
This little-known gem from writer/director Todd Stephens gives us an Ohio-to-New-York road trip with a decidedly pop twist: protagonists Gypsy (the great, undervalued Sara Rue) and Clive (Kett Turton) are goth Stevie Nicks fans, headed to Gotham for a “Night of a Thousand Stevies.” And as far as I’m concerned, every single road movie from here on out could do with a bit more Fleetwood Mac in the logline.