Flix Picks: The Sugarland Express

Flix Picks is a semi-regular feature that explores the depths of my Netflix queue and allows me the chance to catch up with some older films that I’ve not yet seen.

Looking through Steven Spielberg’s filmography, there are very few films that I’ve yet to see. Until recently, The Sugarland Express (1974) was one of those films. As Spielberg’s first foray into theatrical features, it remains relatively unknown and unseen by most fans. What reputation it does have mainly consists of being known as the movie Spielberg made before Jaws. It’s an unfortunate status because The Sugarland Express offers viewers a chance to witness the beginnings of one of cinemas most talented filmmakers, complete with all the themes and sensibilities that he would become known for throughout his career.

The Sugarland Express, based on actual events, tells the story of Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) and Clovis Poplin (William Atherton), a Texas couple who have seen better days. Lou Jean has recently been released from jail for petty crimes and Clovis is still serving time in a minimum security pre-release remand where he will serve four remaining months of his sentence. The real heart of their troubles is revealed when Lou Jean visits Clovis in jail and informs him that their son Langston has been taken by child services and permanent custody has been awarded to foster parents in the town of Sugarland. Desperate to reclaim her son and frustrated with the legal system, Lou Jean convinces Clovis to break out of prison and together they will take back their boy by whatever means necessary.

Their plan turns into a complicated ordeal when greenhorn patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) catches up to the couple only to become their hostage as the Poplins use the officer’s patrol car for their journey. Once word spreads about the abduction, entire squadrons of police are on the case, led by veteran Captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson). As the chase escalates, the event becomes a media sensation and the Poplins receive support from many townspeople they encounter on their drive. But with all the attention, the level of danger escalates for the Poplins, a fact that they attempt to avoid thinking about.

Right away, we can tell that Spielberg chose a story that highlighted themes he would return to throughout his career, namely family dysfunction and childhood innocence. Oddly enough, Lou Jean and Clovis essentially function as the children in the film as much as baby Langston. The couple immaturely argue, burst into anger, and take whatever they want, regardless of the consequences. Their wide-eyed naïveté allows them to think that their plan will work when everything else points to the contrary. In many ways, they remind me of fellow criminal Dignan from Bottle Rocket in that they might not be innocent in the eyes of the law, but they are innocent at heart. Harlin Tanner appears to recognize that the Poplins are essentially decent people who are misguided in their actions and he tries everything in his power to end the debacle peacefully.

Despite the seriousness of the set-up, there’s plenty of Spielberg’s brand of humor throughout the film, most of which plays fairly broad. With the story essentially a car chase, plenty of opportunities occur for wipeouts and pileups, which the movie gladly indulges. It may not be a Blues Brothers level of destruction, but there’s a fair amount on display. One sequence with a group of trigger-happy rednecks lends a darker dose of comic destruction to the proceedings as they shoot up a used car lot in pursuit of the Poplins. Also playing into the laughs is the media coverage the couple receive; attention that turns them into folk heroes in the mold of Bonnie and Clyde. As a news van pulls up alongside the Poplins, hoping for an interview amidst the chaos, the satire of sensationalist modern media is absolutely clear. These well-placed comedic moments contribute to the film’s pacing and tone, adding to what could have otherwise been a dry procedural.

Aside from tone, Spielberg’s technical proficiency had already been developing through years of TV work and it’s on display here as well. The film has its share of crane and tracking shots as well as a few trickier shots for the time. For instance, the types of cameras used were mobile enough to allow for a 360 pan around a moving car. I haven’t been able to think of another film from the same era that contains that type of shot. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond captures the landscapes of the Texas highway in a way that doesn’t come off as monotonous (an achievement, especially if you’re familiar with that part of the country). There are some examples of careful framing as well, such as some uses of rear view mirrors and reflections off glass.

As far as performances, I thought everyone pulled their weight. Lou Jean is a firecracker of emotion and Goldie Hawn handles her wave of moods skillfully. Some may find the character annoying at times, but Hawn certainly performs admirably. Atherton plays a character who has to act tough but who really questions himself and his actions. He alternates between those modes with precision. Veteran character actor Ben Johnson fits perfectly into the role of the police captain. Just the sound of his sure and steady voice is enough to convince us of his character’s professionalism and good nature. Michael Sacks has a complex role as the patrolman who is held hostage. His character’s growing relationship with the Poplins could have been clichéd or forced, but Sacks sells it as being believable.

Despite all this praise, I don’t think it’s a perfect film. Even though the Poplins are our protagonists, I could see some people struggling to support them fully. I don’t say that just because the characters blatantly break the law, but because they might not be as endearing as the film tries to portray them as being. Also, the ending’s change in tone felt off for me. Perhaps the filmmakers were attempting to stay true to the actual events that inspired the film. Whatever the reasoning was for the climax, this is one time that I thought a slightly more Spielbergian ending was in order. As it is, the film holds much more in keeping with other road movies of the time.

While The Sugarland Express may not stand among the all-time Spielberg classics like E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s a film that deserves more recognition. It provides a look at an emerging talent that would soon captivate audiences around the world. Aside from a historical perspective, the film stands on its own as a solid piece of entertainment with some strong performances and an interesting premise. There’s a certain energy to ’70s Spielberg that becomes infectious and this film is no exception. So, if you have the chance, I’d highly recommend checking out The Sugarland Express, currently on Netflix Instant Watch. Give it a watch and chime in with your thoughts in the comments.

SCORE: 3.5 stars

Recommended If You Like: Vanishing Point, Easy Rider, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry

  • Kasper

    Seen this one ages ago – didn’t even know it was Spielberg! Thought it was great though. I just caught it randomly on tv one day.

  • projectgenesis

    Just as an addendum for US readers who subscribe to Comcast cable: Sugarland Express is free on-demand this month.

  • Jim_A

    Love this movie. Perfect viewing for anyone who’s a fan of Spielberg’s early period. From the TV work he did, straight into this, Jaws, and Close Encounters — you can loose yourself in front of a TV for days at a time, watching this era of his work. And I believe this is when he was not only at his creative best, but had the most creative freedom. Great stuff.