Sugarland Express, The

Reviewed By Charles Tatum
Posted 08/18/04 10:16:55

"Deep in the Heart of Texas"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Steven Spielberg's first theatrical film shows some signs of things to come.

Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) has recently been released from jail after serving eight months for larceny. Her husband, Clovis (William Atherton), has just four months left on his sentence, but there is a problem. Their toddler son has been taken by welfare and placed in a foster home. Lou Jean comes up with a scheme to break Clovis out of prison.

The couple hitches a ride, but are pulled over by highway patrolman Slide (Michael Sacks). They panic, run, wreck, and kidnap the law officer and hijack his patrol car. Tough captain Tanner (Ben Johnson, who was completely incapable of turning in a bad performance) begins negotiations with the pair, with about two dozen police cars on their trail. Lou Jean has pie in the sky dreams of getting their child and living happily ever after, but Clovis and Slide know otherwise.

Spielberg uses southern Texas locations to the fullest extent. My father's family is from the area where the film takes place, and the only problems I found were geographical ("Sugar Land" is actually two words, and not anywhere near a ten minute drive from the Mexican border). Vilmos Zigmond's cinematography is lovely without calling attention to itself, and John Williams' score is great, not a French horn in sight. This is a gritty film, different from the "clean" looks of his more recent films.

While Goldie Hawn is the top billed star here, the film really feels like a team effort. Lou Jean is in her own little dream land, and Clovis is not much smarter. These two are not Bonnie and Clyde, murderers romanticized to make a good flick. Maxwell Slide does not simply give in to the couple's charm, trying to escape when he can, but also getting to know the pair eventually.

While the "criminal as populist hero" routine has been done before, Spielberg shows some incredible confidence behind the camera. As in "Duel," every supporting character seems to have a story of their own, which never crowds the main narrative. Tanner has personal problems, and is sometimes seen as weak by his men. Lou Jean's crotchety father wants to take her over his knee. The two old snipers called in to end the chase are professional yet normal. Even the child's foster parents try not to fold under the pressure, a middle aged couple who love this angelic child in their care. Spielberg lets them all have moments, and he shows he can deal with adult actors (a major complaint about many of his films). Spielberg also generates some suspense, especially the finale, another trait found in "Duel," and his next film, "Jaws." I would love to see him go back to this kind of simple film making, forget the effects, forget the kids, just make an out and out Hitchcockian or even horror thriller.

"The Sugarland Express" succeeds as an action flick, and also a character study. It is finally on DVD ( in widescreen, a godsend to those of us who had to sit through the terrible pan and scan VHS version for years. The only extra on the DVD is the trailer, I would have liked to see more on the film making process, and the real life players (this was supposedly based on a true story). For now, we will take what we can get.

If you are a Spielberg nut, you simply must get this DVD for your collection. Spielberg is now an icon, as famous as his films, and it is great to see where his film roots began.

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