Written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.
In 1974, Steven Spielberg released The Sugarland Express, based on the real-life incident perpetrated by Ila Fae Holiday and Robert Dent in 1969. Starring Goldie Hawn, William Atherton, Ben Johnson, Michael Sacks, Gregory Walcott, Steve Kanaly, and Louise Latham, the film grossed $12.8 million at the box office.
Lou Jean Poplin, a petty criminal two weeks out of jail, breaks her husband Clovis out of a minimum-security facility. In spite of Clovis only having four months left on his sentence, Lou Jean insists on breaking him out as the government has put their two-year-old son in foster care and she wants to take him back.
As Spielberg’s theatrical directorial debut, The Sugarland Express is a decent film. It’s a film with the knowledge of how bizarre its subject matter is and treats it thusly. The idea cooked up by Lou Jean to break her husband out of a minimum-security facility four months before he’s set to be released simply to regain control of her child is something so unusual it could only be thought of in real life. The absurdity following the two of them on their low-speed chase with their kidnapped officer in tow is fascinating to follow, from Clovis threatening to shoot an outhouse in order to make sure it’s not occupied by an officer to said officer hoping to act as mediator when the two of them start having an argument. The scenes setting up the plot are good too, especially the old man who insists on driving 25 mph on an open highway.
As characters, Lou Jean and Clovis are interesting in their own right, considering the film works to deconstruct the type of people who would go on the run from police as a rogue couple. In its query of what kind of couple would do such a thing and expect to get away with it, the film delivers its audience the answer of those who aren’t particularly smart people. Yet, Clovis does come off as smarter than Lou Jean, if not much. When the two of them have temporarily shaken the police caravan, they take refuge at a drive in and watch a Looney Toons cartoon. She enjoys it and he watches the Coyote fail at his attempts to catch the Road Runner and makes the connection between their plights. His face during the scene shows he identifies with and sees their journey is doomed. Furthermore, Patrolman Maxwell Slide has a humorous character arc. Despite him maintaining a calm demeanor for the entire film, he begins admonishing Lou Jean and Clovis for their actions to helping them hotwire a car and pointing out the trap the police have laid for them.
The acting within the film is pretty good, too. Hawn is able to come across as an unhinged mother, clearly not thinking straight in the wake of losing her child, both in her dialogue and body language. She does this well from her first scenes, going from faking anger at Clovis to tricking him into the restroom where she harangues him into making an escape attempt. At the same time, Atherton is believable as someone unable to believe what is happening in front of him, but goes with it anyway. In the aforementioned scene depicting the two of them watching the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon, his facial expression is entirely believable when the character is making said connection. All the other actors in the film give good performances as well, including Sacks as the patrolman the duo kidnap. The character continuously maintains a calm and stoic demeanor as he’s taken for a ride by Lou Jean and Clovis and Sacks presents this in an authentic way.
Nevertheless, the pacing leaves a lot to be desired. The film’s slow police chase throughout its runtime does not help in providing the necessary flow. Many times, it feels as if it’s dragging along, waiting to come to the next important scene. The time the car drives through a crowd of people who have been waiting for their arrival is one good example. Running just shy of two hours, the film could have lost somewhere between 20 minutes to half an hour without losing anything necessary.
Awards & Recognitions
bold indicates reception of award/recognition
Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA – Saturn Awards
- Best DVD/Blu-Ray Collection (As part of the “Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection.”)
Cannes Film Festival
- Best Screenplay
- Palme d’Or
Writers Guild of America, USA Awards
- Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen