[Film Review] The Sugarland Express (1974)

The Sugarland Express poster

Title: The Sugarland Express
Year: 1974
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Crime, Drama
Director: Steven Spielberg
Hal Barwood
Matthew Robbins
Steven Spielberg
Music: John Williams
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmound
Goldie Hawn
William Atherton
Michael Sacks
Ben Johnson
Gregory Walcott
Steve Kanaly
Dean Smith
Louise Latham
Jessie Lee Fulton
Rating: 6.4/10

The Sugarland Express 1974

Steven Spielberg’s theatrical feature film debut made at the age of 28, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS is based on the true event happened in southern-west Texas 1969. A young woman Lou Jean Poplin (Hawn), abets her husband Clovis Michael Poplin (Atherton) to escape from his pre-release facility in Beauford H. Jester Prison Farm, and en route to Sugar Land to get their infant boy from his foster family. It is plain happenstance that they hold a patrolman Maxwell Slide (Sacks) hostage and driving the latter’s patrol automobile, the three head to Sugar Land, while tailing by a parade of police vehicles led by Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Captain Harlin Tanner (Johnson).

At first glance, the Poplins’s plan is, from any aspects, shockingly fatuous, how on earth they can naively think the authorities will leave their son in situ under such circumstances? Without much thinking, one would realize there must be a deathtrap awaits in their final destination, yet, during their entire journey, that never occurs to them until it’s too late. One might argue, that is what happened in real life, maybe the Poplins are sheer simpletons, pure white trashes, yet, we are not watching a documentary about the sensationalized story, if the protagonists are treated with such a simple-minded frame of mind, which effectively creates a sizeable challenge for viewers to relate to, ultimately the viewing experience will be all but satisfactory.

Maybe, if Spielberg could lean his angle more from the perspective of Slide, who is a decent young man caught by surprise when performing his duties. The outcome would be more edifying, since the growing mutual respect is the key revelation out of this jejune act, as an outsider, Slide has the privileged intimacy to observe the couple and get a glimpse of their mindset, if there is any vestiges to keep viewers invested in their fate. However they are reckless and dull-witted, the Poplins are not the worst, Spielberg shows no relent to dress down those self-professed vigilante riflemen, a bunch of trigger-happy hillbillies who are instinctively aroused by the thrill of killing, have no wits to even make a basic evaluation about their targets before plunging into a manic fusillade, they exemplifies the bane of America’s ever-controversial “gun culture”, to possess a weapon of mass destruction is not for everyone, if a country cannot establish a fail-safe edict to secure the safety of the innocent, logically, this is the liberty we should uniformly forego.

Mr. Spielberg manifests an acute eye for the visual splendor, there are incredibly breathtaking shots taken along the Texas highway landscape, for its sepia vastness and gorgeous sunset, although one might find it puzzling about the functionality of the cavalcade of police cars tailing along, that’s not the right way to splurge tax payers’ money. In a more important note, the film has officially embarked the time-honored collaboration between Spielberg and John Williams, spans over four decades hitherto.

Goldie Hawn, ups her ante to play a more straight-faced and neurotic character which is not her strong suit, irritable as ever thanks to the vacuous nature of Lou Jean, Atherton and Sacks, two fresh faces given abundant screen-time to act, are fine but no surprises, last but not the least. Ben Johnson, the Oscar-winning veteran for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971), instills something decent and sympathetic in the story, being the only rational mind in that ephemeral fanfare.

Oscar 1974  The Sugarland Express

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