An early Steven Spielberg feature that doesn’t get discussed as much as his breakthrough TV movie, Duel (1971), or his effects-driven blockbusters Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), this dark adventure arguably represents an instance of Spielberg tackling mature subject matter before he was ready to do so. Even though the film is highly watchable (and intermittently exciting), it’s easy to see how a director with a deeper worldview—and a different cast, for that matter—could have given the story even greater impact. The movie also has tonal problems, since it wobbles between lighthearted escapism and symbolism-drenched tragedy. Therefore, it’s a testament to Spielberg’s innate talent that the movie mostly overcomes its flaws. Especially during the finale, when Spielberg demonstrates his gifts for imaginative camerawork and meticulous pacing, The Sugarland Express packs a punch.
Based on a real story about a Texas housewife who busted her husband out of jail and then led police on an epic chase in a reckless attempt to reclaim custody of her infant child, who was in foster care, the movie is a forerunner to Thelma & Louise (1991), the polarizing Oscar winner about two women on the run. Like Thelma & Louise, this movie asks questions about what rights women have in a male-dominated society while delivering an exciting yarn about a likeable antihero fleeing an army of cops. Goldie Hawn, taking a huge leap from the sexy-hippie roles that had dominated her career prior to The Sugarland Express, stars as Lou Jean Poplin, a poorly educated Texan married to a likeable petty criminal, Clovis Michael Poplin (William Atherton). Hawn was obviously eager to demonstrate dramatic range, and she’s fairly persuasive when called upon to embody Lou Jean’s turbulent emotions. Nonetheless, a more experienced actress—Ellen Burstyn, for instance—could have rendered a characterization with more dimension.
Hawn’s costar, Atherton, is similarly underwhelming. Although a fine character actor with a particular affinity for playing uptight assholes—witness his great work a decade later in Ghostbusters (1984) and Die Hard (1988)—he’s neither a natural leading man nor the right choice for portraying a Southern outlaw. And as for poor Michael Sacks, who plays the highway patrolman whom the Poplins capture for a hostage during their long trek across enemy territory, he barely registers, though much of the fault lies with an underwritten role. Rounding out the principal cast is Ben Johnson, who lends gravitas as the conscientious top cop trying to end the chase without bloodshed—a precursor to the role Harvey Keitel played in Thelma & Louise.
Working from a superficial but well-crafted script by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, Spielberg plays to his strengths, as when he illustrates the reactions of normal people who elevate the Poplins to folk-hero status. It’s also worth nothing that the technical execution of the film is beyond reproach. Master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond uses the hot Texas sun to sculpt images from long shadows, resulting in one beautiful panorama after another, and The Sugarland Express was the project with which Spielberg and genius composer John Williams began their legendary collaboration.
The Sugarland Express: GROOVY