18 March 2022

52 for '22: The Sugarland Express

Movie: The Sugarland Express (1974)
Method: Netflix DVD

They're slowly getting away, Chief

Why Did I Watch This?

This is the first of one of the LONG-standing films on my Netflix DVD queue that I'm trying to aggressively work through this year, and quite frankly, a major basis for the impetus of this series! This has been on there for a while, wholly because it was Steve Spielberg's last film before JAWS (1975) and his first theatrical feature (Duel [1971] obviously comes first, but that was a TV movie that was later released theatrically). With West Side Story (2021) making the rounds, it felt very appropriate to pull the trigger on this and see what early Spielberg was like, if I could predict his greatness, and spy any future trends.

What Did I know ahead of time?

Surprisingly nothing. I especially realized that when it got going. First of all, Goldie Hawn was in this?! And the bad guy from Ghostbusters and Die Hard? As it got rolling I said outloud, "Is this the whole plot?" referring to the continuous chase scene. I really knew nothing except for Spielberg's directing participation, which really shows how potent he is as a director. Yet, I imagine many more of us are familiar with this film's follow-up.

What Did I think?

This was reliably good. The premise is kind of wacky, but based on a true story. Goldie Hawn busts hubby William Atherton out of a super-minimum security prison in order to save their baby boy from foster care. That's really it. Hilarity ensues. Nah, they hitch a ride with an old couple, who gets pulled over for going under 25 miles an hour on a highway. The couple gets the wrong idea when they are talking to the police officer, take off, and then end up taking that cop as a hostage. It all spirals out of control until nearly the whole state of Texas (and Louisiana) is on their tail.

There is a fundamentally painful question at the center of all this. Clearly Goldie Hawn and Atherton aren't really suitable to be parents, they are awfully unstable in every possible way. Except they do love their son and want very badly to settle down and be a happy family. But they're just not going to ever be in that position, especially as they dig themselves into a bigger and bigger hole. So, you're cheering for them the whole way, but at the same time, there's just no way this film can end well.

It doesn't. Spoiler for this 50-year old film, but when they finally approach the foster home, it's a trap! Atherton should have followed his gut, but he can't resist the pleas of Goldie Hawn (or his own desire), he approaches the house and gets shot in the gut. This is again an age-old film whose political statements reverberate today. Do they deserve to be shot and killed for their actions? Undeniably not, but hey, this is Texas. Everyone seems really eager to shoot them. Except for the main Sherriff guy, who is well-acted by Ben Johnson, who had won the Academy Award a few years before for The Last Picture Show (1971). He practices some restraint without losing any of his masculinity or authority, and his inability to keep his promise to the couple along with his duty to the law is a tragic conflict.

This is a surprisingly funny film, and while watching it, I did sort of realize that Spielberg's humour just sort of became mainstream blockbuster humour. There are bits where a character will react, say a broad joke, or the camera will linger just enough to demonstrate a punchline. It's stuff I see everywhere from Batman Begins (2005) to Captain Marvel (2019) these days. There's very much that sort of wry irony to the whole affair. Despite all this, the ending is an incredible downer. I wonder if that's why this hasn't really been propped up as high in Spielberg's canon, or that it's just so overshadowed by JAWS and his sci-fi work. He never really directed another roadtrip crime caper movie like this.

It does make it a weird film of its time. It feels like halfway between Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977). There were a lot of these kind of movies in this era, and nowadays this stands out because of its Spielbegisms. The reaction shots, the steady hand, the incredible sense of space and location. The humour. You always have a keen sense of what's going on and it's a remarkably capable film. It constantly feels as if the talent behind the camera is outreaching the material. There were a few sunset shots that were really remarkable, but my favourite is the reverse mirror shot that I posted up above.

But as I remarked about the plot, once it gets going, it's basically just one drawn out car chase. Sometimes in slow motion when they run out of gas, sometimes in other cars when they get away, and sometimes on foot or in a portapotty. It spins its premise in quite a few unique ways and remarkably keeps driving its momentum forward.

I enjoyed this, it's a solid movie on its own footing, and assuredly a get watch if you're a fan of Spielberg, or just the craft of filmmaking. This was his first collaboration with John Williams and remains a solid film, fifty years later.

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