A Whole Lotta Spiel-berg: The Sugarland Express (1974)

Welcome back to our journey through the filmography of one of the world’s most iconic directors, Steven Spielberg. We kind of skipped ahead a little but now we’re back tracking to talk about his second feature film, The Sugarland Express.

Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) breaks her husband Clovis (William Atherton) out of prison so the two can hit the road and retrieve their baby son. However, things don’t quite go to plan and pair find themselves kidnapping a police officer, and bringing him along for the ride while an army of police cars follow after them.

I was surprised to find out this sits at an impressive 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and won an award at the Cannes film festival…

Very surprising, because this is easily one of Spielberg’s worst films. Duel had its issues, but there was a lot to admire about it. This? Not so much. The performances are reasonably good, but nothing ever stands out, and John Williams’ score is pretty cool, plus there’s still a sense of inventiveness on Spielberg’s part. He’s still a young man making a name for himself in film at this point and you can tell he’s trying hard to make something great. Unfortunately, it’s just a massive bore.

For a road movie, it’s surprisingly slow; this is a frequent occurrence amongst Spielberg’s early films but the film moves at the pace of a fucking snail. Even in its action sequences are boring as all hell. The only thing that’s interesting about it is the early use of Spielberg tropes such as cartoons (He was a huge fan of Chuck Jones) and images seen in a side mirror. The story is never as emotionally investing as it should be, the performances aren’t convincing enough to engage you, the characters aren’t interesting enough to keep you going, and it really is just a very weak film.

That is, until the final 20 minutes.

I won’t spoil it, but the climax is most definitely better than everything that precedes it. At long last, a sense of danger comes in (effectively, at least); there’s a little shock, there’s a little excitement, and a touch of poignancy to its closing scenes. It really brings it home in this final chunk of film, and whilst it’s not enough to redeem the entire feature, it really deserves credit for that part alone.

The Sugarland Express does a great job of bringing it home, but the film itself just fails to hit the heights necessary for an entertaining and engaging road movie. Join us next time when Spielberg finally comes into his own as a craftsman and delivers the masterpiece that is Jaws.


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