Spielberg’s Hidden Gem: The Sugarland Express

The experience that I have had with Spielberg have been an adventurous and curious one, one that opens up opportunities that reality simply won’t suffice; this was the case in his take on the Indiana Jones series, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, even War Horse. His sophomore film, The Sugarland Express finds itself on more familiar ground, a story that is based on reality and remains within the realms of our reality from start to end. This is a rare find in his filmography that cannot be helped but highlighted either as an odd entry or a unique triumph, which I thankfully reside on the latter.

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The film states at its start that The Sugarland Express is based on a true story, and at its initial moments, the whole experience felt like a parody rather than something respectful; the characters we find seem to push the plot rather than developing themselves for audiences to gain some sort of understanding and even admiration. Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) breaks her husband, Clovis (William Atherton), out of prison with only four months left, due to her current state of anxiety, loneliness, and desperation; recently learned that their child have been taken away to new foster parents in Sugar Land, Texas. Whilst in pursuit of a highway patrolman, Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks), they manage to take the officer and his vehicle in a ride towards their baby. The swift escalation of their crimes has led them to be further chased by hundreds of officers, in hoping they would release the officer in captive and hoping to avoid further harm to possible civilians that may come their way.

A part of me feels that this is Spielberg at his rawest, unwilling to let over-sentiment manipulate the development and outcome of its characters; sitting through this film was like a breath of fresh air, a balance of both adventure and drama that dabbles in between with comedy, providing an encapsulating experience. Our perspective towards the couple seems connected with the captured officer, initially seeing them as fools who are too proud to admit defeat, but eventually as our presence with them lengthens, the more we sympathise for their cause, growing with each passing mile our hopes that their ending would be fruitful.

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As the trio reaches closer to their destination, relationships begin to strengthen and its thrill and laughter begin to dwindle; Maxwell has begun to admire their intentions and in his own way begins to help them, or at least warn them, if things become too dire for the couple. Like most human beings, his own safety is paramount, but to see these couple reach closer and closer to their destination still with such hope that things would fall neatly into place as they imagine it to be, becomes all the more heartbreaking.

Goldie Hawn’s face radiates in every frame she is in as the distressed and desperate mother, Lou Jean, acting on complete impulse that lacks the foresight of its grand consequences. Spielberg and his later Close Encounters collaborator, Vilmos Zsigmond, highlights Hawn with every chance they get, acting as the film’s emotional centre, her constant presence eventually warms our hearts and ultimately changes our overall perspective of her; reaching its unfortunate end with such power in her blank stare. William Atherton (Clovis) and Michael Sacks (Maxwell Slide) are the prominent males that surround Hawn’s performance, at times create a palpable sense of the radiating but subtle impact that her presence provides, they come out at the end as different figures to what they once were when they started; all due to her mental dedication and emotional command.

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The Sugarland Express has allowed his audience to finally see that he is beyond the cheap thrills that came from Duel, and that he is able to take a serious and emotional story, while managing to entertain his audience. This is a figure who understands how to place his audience in the custom seat necessary to maximise the experience of his features, and though The Sugarland Express isn’t the prime example of this trait, it is however present. Maybe further down the track many would see the gem that resides underneath his entire body of work.

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4 thoughts on “Spielberg’s Hidden Gem: The Sugarland Express

  1. Great review! I found myself split, in terms of how I felt about what the central characters were doing. I understood their plight, but they were complete idiots, selfishly risking the lives of innocent people because of their own poor life choices. Of course, the film is making points about gun culture too.

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      1. I can see why you had sympathy, I had slivers of it myself – they were portrayed as child-like, particularly Goldie Hawn’s character, but I couldn’t help feeling she was a manipulator with her weak-minded husband. She was all ultimatums and high demands, although he was foolish enough to follow her into trouble.

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