Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 7, 2018)
Arguably Steven Spielberg’s least-seen film, 1974’s The Sugarland Express merits memory mainly due to one distinction. After work on TV, it became his first big-screen affair.
Once we get past that concept, does Express offer much of note? Not tremendously, for while it provides a decent flick, it doesn’t match up with Spielberg’s subsequent successes.
Based on a true story, Sugarland comes set in Texas during 1969. We meet Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) as she goes to visit her husband Clovis (William Atherton) at a Texas correctional facility.
Lou Jean tells Clovis she’s leaving him, as she just got out of a women’s facility and couldn’t retrieve two-year-old son Langston (Harrison Zanuck) from foster care. Clovis agrees to help get him back, and she wants the three of them to head to Los Angeles.
Lou Jean busts Clovis out of the minimum security facility and they hitch a ride with the elderly parents of another inmate, but they get pulled over when the man drives too slowly and creates a nuisance. As Officer Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) approaches, they panic and steal the car.
Eventually they crash on the side of the road, but they steal Slide’s gun when he tries to help. They take him prisoner and make him drive them toward Sugarland, where they plan to reacquire baby Langston – an endeavor that creates a long chase while law enforcement pursues the outlaws.
Given Spielberg’s reputation as a sentimental, heavy-handed filmmaker, Express maintains a surprisingly even-handed take on matters. By that I mean that he doesn’t go for easy emotion, because other elements go for specific concepts.
The flick clearly sympathizes with the Poplins, who become cultural icons. The massive manhunt earns them fans, and Spielberg often also depicts the police in a negative light.
Actually, the film treats all of the participants as fairly negative, for the Poplins don’t seem particularly competent either. Nonetheless, the cops get most of the heat.
Given the dim intellect of the Poplins, the police come across as especially dull since they constantly fall victim to the outlaws’ machinations. Express clearly adopts the anti-establishment tone of the era, as it sides with the rebels.
Some exceptions occur, particularly through the depiction of head cop Tanner (Ben Johnson), as he seems like the only rational and thoughtful person in the flick. Most of the police appear dopey, and the Poplins are impulsive and emotional as well.
Tanner demonstrates the most reasoned personality in the movie, as he shows the two sides of his dilemma. He needs to stop the Poplins but he dreads the extremes to which he must go.
Actually, I question some of those elements, as the cops go to tremendous extremes to stop two non-violent kidnappers. Sure, the fact they abducted a fellow officer exacerbates things, but it seems illogical that the authorities send so many cars after them and also attempt to use such lethal force. Given that the film comes based on a true story, I don’t know how much of this really happened, but it comes across as a stretch.
Much of Express offers a moderately comedic take on things, but Spielberg demonstrates a surprising level of darkness at times. We don’t expect that from the usually light-handed director, but the story’s harsher elements receive appropriate exploration.
In general, Spielberg lends the flick a subdued tone. He favors the comedy at times but doesn’t go for the broad emphasis that might make it a farce.
Does The Sugarland Express succeed wholly? No, for although it explores its topic more than competently, it never truly engages the viewer.
The movie presents few overt flaws but it lacks the spark or dynamic tone that made Spielberg’s better efforts so good. It fails to become as distinctive either and seems more like the work of a young director than a fully-formed auteur.
That’s appropriate given that it was the work of a young director, though he’d soon emerge as a massive talent with 1975’s Jaws. Express remains a historical curiosity, one that sporadically entertains.