3-Act Structure in Thelma & Louise
Act I: The Trip
The movie opens with two middle-aged best friends, Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon), planning to go away for the weekend. Thelma is a housewife married with an unloving abusive husband who sells carpet for a living. Louise is a waitress. Bored to death by their tedious lives, the gals are desperate for a change. A major foreshadowing happens while Thelma packs, and she puts a revolver inside her purse.
The desire to escape and do something fun is the dominating goal in Act 1. Their plan is quite simple: go to a cabin that belongs to the day manager of the diner where Louise works and spend the weekend there.
However, claiming that she never has opportunity "to do stuff like that," Thelma requests a stop. The place of choice is the bar/club Silver Bullet.
To Louise's astonishment, Thelma orders a drink because after all it's her "vacation." Right away, Harlan, one of the patrons at the Silver Bullet hits on Thelma. A nice instance of character development takes place as the conflicting traits between the two women become obvious. Louis is hostile to Harlan's approach, while Thelma is open and welcoming. After a few drinks, Thelma accepts to dance with Harlan. Harlan lets her get drunk and, while dancing, spins her several times in order to make her dizzy. They go out into an empty parking lot and Plot Point I happens...
At the parking lot, Thelma resists Harlan's advances. Harlan slaps her and pulls up her dress. His aggressive intent becomes obvious. When Thelma begs him to stop and slaps him, Harlan hits her hard and her nose bleeds... Harlan unbuckles his belt. Louise shows up, armed with Thelma's revolver... Gun up, she holds it against Harlan's neck... Harlan stops and the two women walk away. When he yells "suck my dick," Louise shoots him.
The reasons why Louis does it – since they were not in danger – is open for discussion. Through a serious of exposition it is later suggested that Louise was raped in Texas, where she also learned how to handle a gun.
Act II: The Runaway
The event at the parking lot drastically alters the dynamics of the story. Act 1 was about going away and having some fun. Act 2 begins with Louise as a murder and Thelma an accomplice – their vacation is cut short. The big question is what to do. Thelma suggests going to the police and explaining that she was being raped, but Louise rejects that possibility claiming that no one would believe in a rape attempt when "just about a hundred goddamn people saw you dancing cheek-to-cheek with him all night, who's gonna believe that?"
When the gals realize that no one saw them at the parking lot, they reckon they have a change at escaping this entire situation and not being caught. By then, Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) is brought into the picture to solve the murder.
Detective Slocumb and his superior talk. When they suppose there is a change the killers "left the state," the FBI is informed. The stakes gets higher. However, Thelma and Louise, unaware of the dire situation in which they are sinking in, keep driving onward.
Soon money becomes an issue. The gals need it for food, gas, and accommodation. Louise calls her boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen), and this time he answers. Jimmy is asked to wire some money to Oklahoma City and he commits to do so.
Thelma calls her husband and the conversation ends with her asking him to "go fuck yourself." With the break-up, Thelma is free for a new romance. And quite conveniently, walking out of the phone booth, she trips on a young good-looking JD (Brad Pitt). Impeccable timing. After the initial reluctance, Louise ultimately accepts to give JD a ride to Oklahoma City.
Despite his little screen time, JD becomes a major figure in the middle of the movie. He is the transition from the first half of Act 2 onto the second. The twist that happens halfway in a movie is also considered a plot point but called the midpoint. In Thelma & Louise the midpoint is provoked by JD.
On a rainy night, Louise shares a motel room with Jimmy, while Thelma shares a room with JD. Thelma and JD have sex. On the following morning, Jimmy says his goodbyes to Louise and JD walks away with the $750 left under Thelma's supervision. The gals are left practically penniless.
This setback starts a moment of crisis and propels Thelma to make something that is quite uncharacteristic of her: she robs a store using the technique taught to her by JD moments before they slept together.
Ironically, JD who created this problem also gave Thelma the solution – although a counterproductive solution. This further evinces how JD is an important gimmick in the plot. In addition to that, JD is also the tattletale that reveals to the authorities Thelma and Louise's destination – Mexico.
Concurrently, Detective Slocumb proceeds with his investigation. He meets with Thelma's husband, Darryl, and sets up a tap in her house. But Darryl's exaggerated enthusiasm when Thelma calls is suspicious, and Thelma hangs up. Louise calls again and talks with Detective Slocumb for the first time. Later, Louise calls him again to examine the situation. Detective Slocumb says all the rights things and manages to get Louise long enough on the phone in order to trace the call. This is Plot Point II. Up until this moment, police and FBI was running with blindfolds. But all that changes...
Act III: The Escape
After the call is successfully traced, it is only a matter of time before Detective Slocumb get to them. The gals are determined not to get caught. They keep driving for as long as they can. The showdown takes place at the Grand Canyon.
Thelma and Louise face police and FBI. Obviously outnumbered, their fate doesn't look promising.
When they get cornered at the Grand Canyon, between police squads and the cliff, their choices are three. They can surrender, fight, or "keep going" as Thelma suggests. And that's what they do. Louise stomps on the gas pedal and they drive off the cliff.
Act 3 is the shortest one in most movies. But in Thelma & Louise it's even shorter. Since the movie finishes in the climax, there's no time for an elaborate resolution.