With Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant rearing its ugly head this week, it’s time to consider the other characters and performers who’ve stolen scenes in his films. The first to spring to mind – Brad Pitt’s enigmatic, star-making turn in 1991’s Thelma & Louise – is a much prettier sight. And doesn’t the film know it.

It may seem regressive to single out a man in the mother of all road movies, yet it’s indicative of the fact that in this female-fronted film, men are relegated to supporting roles. Of course, there are women in bit-parts too, but on the film’s release it was Pitt’s performance that made the most impact.

He plays JD, the honey-mouthed yet duplicitous cowboy, hustler and hitchhiker Thelma and Louise encounter as they head south to Mexico. As an Oklahoma native, the role must have been somewhat of a natural fit for the young Pitt, who seems to be having a whale of a time performing JD’s exaggerated southern charm.

He’s not the only one enjoying himself. Callie Khouri’s screenplay has a lot of fun with objectifying JD/Pitt and effectively pushing him into the role women usually occupy in more traditional male-led road movies. As is often the way in road movies, Thelma & Louise sees the titular women cross paths with JD repeatedly, teasingly deferring his significance.

He offers a temporary distraction for both Thelma and the viewer by providing some of the film’s lightest scenes. The “light relief” quality of Pitt’s scenes is amplified through the fact that JD and Thelma’s longest scene is intercut with Louise and Jimmy’s fraught goodbye, during which Louise offers little hope that they’ll ever see each other again.

This section of the film is rife with objectification; Thelma practically salivates at the sight of JD, and tells Louise she thinks he has a “cute butt”. When they part ways for the second time she gazes out of the ’66 Thunderbird’s back windscreen and wistfully yet appreciatively states that she “loves watching him go”. Scott’s camera obliges with a lingering shot from behind, cutting off the top of JD’s head – after all, it’s not the part of him Thelma is most interested in.

JD charms his way into Thelma’s arms – and toward her money – with the same qualities Pitt exudes in order to make his mark on the film. In contrast to the distress and despair Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis often had to embody, JD is a force of charismatic energy and youthful optimism. Pitt’s easy movements and lazy smiles convey JD’s staggering confidence, injecting a boost of energy into Thelma & Louise, and particularly the flagging Thelma.

Thelma and Louise have given JD a ride, and then he gives Thelma one. The sex scene itself is actually very brief and mostly constituted of suggestion – nudity-sparing poses and dramatic clearing of surfaces indirectly imply passion. The camera, however, treats Pitt’s half naked body to even more lingering treatment than his denim-clad behind. A tracking shot moves slowly from his unbuttoned jeans up his well-defined torso, finally resting on his desiring face.

The cinematography, however, does pay just as much attention to Davis’ body, and the choreography – Pitt pulls her gently towards the edge of the bed by the ankles – hints towards JD’s calm control of the situation and his more mercenary motives. Still, it’s refreshing to see some equal-opportunities objectification.

Despite heading for an opportunistic theft, JD can’t resist bragging about his exploits as a robber, and his smug demonstration of how he does it provides Pitt’s best moment. Giving JD’s clearly well-practised routine, Pitt gives an arresting and poised physical performance, and allows the rehearsed quality of the lines to leech into JD’s subsequent conversation with Thelma in dialogue such as “I may be an outlaw darlin’, but you’re the one stealin’ my heart”. Through this continuity, Pitt breathes life into the script’s hints towards JD’s performative duplicity.

Although JD is dispensable as the enabler of Thelma’s sexual (re)awakening, his impact endures longer than Pitt’s cameo, setting up a twist of the plot and characterisation. His theft of Louise’s money is a catalyst for Thelma’s character arc; with an already emotionally-drained Louise collapsing into despair, Thelma is forced to step up. And despite stealing their money, JD’s pride has also furnished Thelma with the means to get it back by mimicking his painfully polite robbery technique (miraculously, she can remember the routine pretty much word-for-word).

He may be nothing more than a subverted trope and plot device – a passenger briefly allowed along for the ride while women continue to drive the car and run the show – but Brad Pitt’s natural charm and cheeky grins make JD a welcome and memorable distraction.