Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Tammy is about being desperate, broke, screwed over by a man, and looking to solve it all by taking to the road with Susan Sarandon as your wingman. Or perhaps it's about being comically fat and comically vulgar. But let us pretend it's the former.

Almost a quarter of a century on, I'm pretty close to certain that the final scene is the most famous thing about Thelma & Louise, so I'm not going to hesitate in talking about it. Bail out if you need to - if there's any way to see the film without knowing where it ends up (I missed my chance by a solid 10 years), you should do it, because it's one of the great American films of the '90s, and the best thing that Ridley Scott ever directed that didn't take place in an impressively designed industrial future.

The reason I lead with the ending, of all things, is because it's the ending, however iconic and perfect, that tends to problematise what the film actually turns out to be, relative to what it's acting like it has been the whole time. Basically, we have a film that looks like empowerment, in which a pair of women who've gotten all fed up with the bullshit of men stop putting up with it, and reclaim their lives. And, having spent an entire film doing that, they die. Now, obviously, there's the defense that they have taken ownership of the most important thing of all - their life and death, which is now not being conceded to the male law enforcement officers surrounding them at the edge of a canyon. But it's a hard thing to describe as "feminist" a movie that only allows its female leads to experience self-empowerment if they pay with their lives at the end of it.

None of which, I want to make absolutely clear, is to say that Thelma & Louise is terribly bad. It's not even to say that it's not still, mostly, a bold and angry statement of feminism; and we could also argue that the film is striking a blow for equality precisely in that it's willing to present its pair of heroines the way that so many male characters have been in so many movies: as likable, relatable characters that we all root for, even as they're doing terrible things and making exaggeratedly bad life choices. It is, after all, an "outlaws on the run" thriller, and those are easy to adore for the complexity of the characters, not for how admirable they are. All that screenwriter Callie Khouri (whose post T&L career - that is to say, the lack thereof - is bizarre and frustrating) did was to apply that framework to a pair of women going through specific experiences that a man wouldn't, and let the characters be who they had to be, even when that means that they're wrong. So maybe it really is feminist. I don't know. As I have a penis, I long ago determined it was best if I prohibit myself from having definitive opinions on these matters.

Anyway, artistic representation and politics are fun to discuss and all, but it's no good to get so stuck in the mud as to lose sight of the fact that Thelma & Louise is an absolutely terrific movie, buoyed up by a pair of tremendous performances from Geena Davis (as Thelma) and Susan Sarandon (as Louise), both of them doing what might easily be declared to be the best work of their careers. Scott's directing is jaw-droppingly good considering how far the material is from what any glance at his films before or since would indicate to be his comfort zone; it has the first truly great score composed by Hans Zimmer; and it's the last film Adrian Biddle shot before his career plummeted into making generic boilerplate crap like 101 Dalmatians, 102 Dalmatians, and the deathless City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold look at least halfway decent, and the best thing the cinematographer ever did. Any fool who can at least use the focus ring correctly can make the Southwest of the United States look like the most gorgeous landscape created by God in a particularly dramatic mood; but there is true greatness in making the California and Utah landscapes where Thelma & Louise was shot (though no scene in the travelogue takes place in either of those states) look the way Biddle did. The film relies, to a degree that isn't given sufficient credit, on its use of two color families to define the conflict and drive the narrative, and Biddle succeeds here in reducing the landscape to piercing, pungent expressions of just those colors: the hard orange of the earth, the creamy blue of the sky.

What I had never realised before was that Thelma & Louise is, in fact, an early example of the old "orange and teal" trick that would, 15 years or more after its release, come to ruin visual expression in mainstream cinema; perhaps because it had to be done knowingly and purposefully and above all, in advance, with no relying on digital tinkering in post to boost all the colors to a point that Vincente Minnelli wouldn't have been able to imagine in his nightmares, Thelma & Louise also has a more useful and effective presentation of those colors. Basically, blue and orange don't dominate the film simply because they contrast nicely with each other (though God knows they do), but because of what that contrast connotes. Basically, Biddle and Scott use color-coding to divide the film into "teams", or rather to use the colors to explain what team is "winning". Blue and related colors are, in this film, exceptionally sleek and exceptionally cold, and it is always used to define spaces dominated by men. Orange, yellow, brown, and all sorts of earth tones, are warm, associated with light sources, and come to the fore in moments when Thelma and Louise are free to be themselves. The first we see of Louise, in the opening shot of the main movie after the picturesque landscape photography beneath the credits (given hazy, half-menacing, half-dreamy emphasis by Zimmer's zoned-out main theme; apparently, Scott only included an opening credit sequence after hearing Zimmer's music and deciding it needed a special moment to be foregrounded), is as part of an undifferentiated mass of human activity in a diner where she waits tables under a manager with a deeply unimaginative sense of leering and flirting; and this space is bright and very cool and blue. Thelma is introduced moments later, in a hushed and quiet home she shares with her bullying husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald); it is dim and so harsh in its metallic blues as to feel like a robot's innards. When the women leave on their road trip, it's in Louise's shiny green car, the one object that obviously sits outside of the film's duochromatic scheme, and which is situated in the frame in a way that emphasises its sleekness and potential energy, pointing off at the dusty, bright ground where the adventurers are about to escape the chilling blue that dominates and defines their everyday life. And so it is throughout: every time the women are being in some way trapped by men - rapists, hunky thieves, Louise's boyfriend, cops - blues start to creep in and dominate, as the film loses visual warmth by the frame.

It's absolutely gorgeous filmmaking, and would be even if Khouri's script wasn't so smartly balanced - it's a road trip movie in which every scene feels like it's building on the one before, rather than simply stringing along incidents in a more-or-less dramatic arc, which is impressive even without bringing the sharp characteristations into it - or Scott's direction so focused and tense. At 129 minutes, Thelma & Louise is awfully long for a story that could have been told in a '70s exploitation picture (which, in a lot of ways, it resembles) in two-thirds the running time, and it keeps ditching to scenes of the primary investigator Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) hunting the women while sympathising with them, among other, even more disposable moments; yet it flies by and never feels like there's even a single moment wasted. The amount of visual variety helps with that (the contrast between snug close-ups and extremely wide panoramas filling up the anamorphic widescreen frame is marvelous), and so do the tremendous lead performances; Davis at her best isn't up to pulling attention from Sarandon, but the latter actress is absolutely not selfish, and the interplay between the two actors is fresh and relaxed and joyful, while their individual highlights showcase all sorts of marvelous character detail - Sarandon's exquisite body acting during a phone call with her boyfriend (Michael Madsen), all twisted up and nervous and clenched; Davis's schoolgirlish slavering over the hunky hitchhiker played by fresh new discovery Brad Pitt (whom the camera happily ogles, an impressive feat given all the straight men making the film). And it has some absolutely flawless line deliveries: Davis's blunt, authoritative "How long before we're in goddamn Mexico", with a look of perfect clarity and strength on her face, or Sarandon's "The scene of our last goddamn crime!" spoken with an enthusiasm and humor that come from nowhere and is positively electrifying.

The thing's not perfect: in his 1991 review, Roger Ebert adroitly noticed that the final freeze frame fades to white with "unseemly haste", and it certainly does feel like the movie suddenly jams to a halt, like a roller coaster that flings you against the safety bar when you pull into the unloading station, and it takes a lot of wind out of the whole feature. But it's freakishly close to perfection, full of tremendously smart images cut together by Thom Noble with a lot of tumbling momentum and a hint of irony (the cutting seems to be as eager to get away from Darryl as Thelma is), a whole host of outstanding supporting performances from basically everybody, and Sarandon and Davis lording over everything with two of the best roles mainstream Hollywood gave to any actresses during the whole of the 1990s. It's a smart deconstruction of social norms and an exciting, fun, tight thriller, and neither of those successes ever gets in the way of the other; basically, this is the kind of film that one wishes every mainstream movie would aspire to be, and it succeeds in almost every way at fulfilling those aspirations.