The Sugarland Express is rough around the edges, but what can you expect? It was Spielberg’s first feature after the made-for-TV Duel.
From the moment Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) walks into the Texas penitentiary, we know she is on a mission. She sass talks the guard, pushes her way into the men’s bathroom and convinces her slack-jawed husband Clovis (William Atherton) that he’s breaking out of jail. It doesn’t matter that he’s only got three months until release, their baby was taken away by child services and they need to rescue him. And so begins the haphazard, true-life journey of a couple with pure hearts and pitiful driving skills.
The Sugarland Express is rough around the edges, but what can you expect? It was Steven Spielberg’s first feature after the made-for-TV Duel. But his energetic direction combined with Hawn’s incandescent performance make the film a minor classic. It’s the sort of quintessential mid-seventies movie where police officers wear cowboy hats and everyone drives a Chevy Impala.
The plot of two law-breaking lovers on the run is similar to Terence Malick’s Badlands but unlike that film, The Sugarland Express is filled with Spielbergian sentiment. Like the adoring public who embrace Clovis and Lou Jean’s downhome charm, Spielberg turns his protagonists into folk heroes. Lou Jean might be holding a gun to a police officer’s head but she still wants to collect kitschy stamps at a gas station pit stop. When they stop their car at a convenience store, Lou Jean calls out for hair spray and lipstick.
The Sugarland Express is essentially about an America that loves cars, freedom, and fast food. The ode to Americana is only enhanced by John Williams’ harmonica solos and waving strings. The sunsets, dirt roads and desert vistas of the movie are enthralling. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography radiates with the oranges, yellow and reds of a southern sky.
The Sugarland Express contains recognizable elements of Spielberg’s lifelong style. From Jurassic Park to E.T. he has always had a gift for taking on a child’s perspective. Throughout Sugarland kids stare in awe at the strange and wondrous world of adults. If only for a moment, we’re seeing from those eyes too, looking out like a guileless child.
When it comes to his characters, Spielberg has always had a generous spirit. In Sugarland, the bad guys are neither the criminals nor the cops. The police captain (Ben Johnson) actually pushes Clovis and Lou Jean’s car up a hill when it runs out of gas. Such compassion for outlaws speaks to Spielberg’s relentless compassion for his characters. There is no tolerance, however, for vigilante justice. When two ordinary men shoot up Clovis and Lou Jean’s trailer, the cops are livid – and so are we. Thirty years before the vocal rise of the NRA, Spielberg is keenly aware of the violence that unchecked access to guns can provoke.
With its countless cars, messy shootouts and traffic mishaps, Sugarland is full of impressive stunts. Spielberg used lens tricks and painted the cars multiple colors to make the road seem jammed to infinitude. He got all the experience he needed to prepare him for his next project. It would be another deadly chase, but this time, it would be in the shark-infested waters of the Pacific.