Friday 15 October 2010

Movie Review: The Sugarland Express (1974)

For his first big-screen motion picture, director Steven Spielberg celebrates the wide open spaces and endless back roads of rural Texas, and flexes his artistic muscles by painting grand canvasses filled with the impressive sight of an endless number of police cars cutting through the countryside.

Based on a true story, The Sugarland Express also foreshadows the era of celebrity criminals, and indeed the OJ Simpson slow speed police chase of 1994 bears a passing resemblance to scenes from the movie.

Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) is released from a Texas prison only to find that her baby has been permanently given over to foster parents. Distraught, she forces her husband Clovis (William Atherton), a prisoner himself, to flee a pre-release detention centre to help drive her to the town of Sugarland and forcibly retrieve her child.

Lou Jean and Clovis soon kidnap a police officer (Michael Sacks) and commandeer his squad car to speed up their quest. With one of their own kidnapped and at gun point, seemingly every police officer and police vehicle in the state of Texas under the leadership of Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) is soon on the tail of Lou Jean and Clovis. As they make their way through small towns on the way to Sugarland and with a mounting media frenzy, the Poplins begin to achieve local celebrity status.

The Sugarland Express has some creaky and awkward moments. A scene in which Lou Jean and Clovis stare at each other and giggle doesn't work, and some of the celebrations as the Poplins drive through small towns appear to be pure Hollywood overkill.

But for the most part, Spielberg uses the Texas scenery to create some wondrous vistas, and the movie benefits enormously from a tireless and appealing Goldie Hawn performance. In the character of Lou Jean she combines childlike immaturity, desperation, single-mindedness and sweetness to drive the movie forward from its opening scene to its conclusion, wrapping the hapless Clovis around her finger and fending off, until the bitter end, all the police power that Texas throws at her.

Atherton is convincing as the slightly dim Clovis, and Johnson effectively portrays Captain Tanner as he grapples with a chaotic situation that inexorably appears to be turning into a circus heading towards calamity.

The Sugarland Express is at least equal measures style and substance, and this is a rare case where these proportions represent the perfect blend.

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