The Sugarland Express review
A major theme in many Steven Spielberg movies is “an unlikely person in an extraordinary situation”. This tends to mean more regular people as our heroes rather then someone who is already privileged or even that experienced. This also means that even if many of the side characters are well known actors, the main stars look more like people that you could see living next door. This has worked well for Spielberg as his stories become more relatable then a lot of the older movies that would have recognizable stars playing special people that are almost never “ordinary Joes”. This is a trope that is introduced in the first Spielberg movie to gain a large wide release, The Sugarland Express.
This movie also deals with the subject of neglectful parents, even though their intentions here are more misguided. Spielberg knows well enough that when one or both parents are not that supportive or when you have people that have dealt with some kind of betrayal in their family, then their personality tends to be clouded with a form of hatred that may or may not be overcome within the story. The Sugarland Express deals with two parents that are trying to do better…if only they thought through their plan better.
Set in 1969, young mother Lou Jean Poplin (played by Goldie Hawn) visits her husband in a pre-release prison to inform him that their baby son has been taken away and is living with foster parents in a Texan town several hours away from their location. Despite only having a few months left in his sentence, Clovis Poplin (played by William Atherton) escapes with Lou with the intention of getting their child back. They hitch a rise with an old couple, but things get complicated when they are pulled over by a patrolman Maxwell Slide (played by Michael Sacks).
Under fear that they’ll be caught, Lou steals the old couple’s car, leading Maxwell to chase them until they crash into a forest. Clovis wants to surrender, but Lou get him to steel the officer’s gun and forces him to take them in his car to drive them to Sugarland, kidnapping him. The slow chase from the rest of the police force leads the couple into holding Maxwell as a hostage, telling them they’ll trade him for their baby. Maxwell gets a better understanding of the young kidnappers while the media makes a showcase of the situation as they make their way to the small town.
Like Duel, The Sugarland Express is another chase movie I’ve never even heard about that could use a little more attention. Duel may have been more of a fast paced joy ride, while this is much slower, allowing us to know both Lou and Clovis a bit more. Their plot may sound stupid as you know they would go to jail regardless, but The Sugarland Express makes it clear that both Lou and Clovis are not bright people. This is how stupid is properly written; far-fetched, yet sympathetic.
Goldie Hawn and William Atherton both are pretty good in their parts as kidnappers as is Michael Sacks as a by the books rookie who is more understanding of our heroes plight. For something that is slow paced, there are a fair amount of car crashes and intense driving scenes. There’s even a crazy set of game hunters that try to shoot the couple in a used car lot. What also surprised me was how funny this was in the first half. I wish there had been more in the second half, which is more quiet and dramatic. While I won’t give away what happens in the end, I’ll say it’s one of the few bittersweet endings in a Spielberg movie.
I’ll give this four buckets of fried chicken out of five. The Sugarland Express did throw me of by taking different paths then I would have imagined. I’d understand if the more blockbuster crowd found this one slow, but for only his second movie, Spielberg proves he can bring a feeling of intenseness even if the chase isn’t that fast.
I’ll also note that this is the first time that John Williams scored a Spielberg movie; a working relationship that still lasts today.