Saturday, March 2, 2013
The Sugarland Express
Somebody can check my math if they want, but by my count Steven Spielberg has directed 28 films in his 40-year career (if you count Duel and toss out his segment of the ill-fated Twilight Zone movie, and also the did-he-or-didn't-he Poltergeist), and while I started this marathon with Duel, his feature film debut proper is The Sugarland Express, released in 1974. Terence Malick has been working for almost the exact same amount of time as a feature film director, and in his entire career he has directed a total of six films (if you spot him To The Wonder, his latest film that premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival and has seemingly disappeared since.) Malick's debut, Badlands, premiered in theaters in October of 1973, beating Spielberg's debut by almost exactly six months.
It's hard not to think of Badlands while you watch The Sugarland Express - it is something of a weird coincidence that two of Hollywood's most revered filmmakers debuted within months of each other with films that bear a striking superficial resemblance to one another. Both are based-on-true-story pictures about a rural couple evading the law and getting themselves in deeper and deeper with each subsequent action. In each movie, one half of the couple is largely responsible for the action, while the other passively tags along (in Badlands, Martin Sheen's character is the take-charge half of the couple; in Sugarland Express, it is Goldie Hawn's character who is ultimately responsible for what happens.) The comparison pretty much falls apart at any deeper level though, which is why Badlands is a bonafide classic, a major new voice planting his flag in the soil, while The Sugarland Express is an answer to a trivia question. Malick and Spielberg occupy opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of sheer bulk of output, and how a person feels about those two modes of artistic creation is something of a litmus test. Spielberg's highs are probably not as high as Malick's, while his lows are much lower, but Spielberg has a body of work that, taken as a whole, is almost unmatched in cinema history, and Malick's is just too slight, for my taste, to be held up against masters like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.
The Sugarland Express begins as Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) breaks her husband Clovis (William Atherton, probably best known as the "this man has no dick" guy from Ghostbusters) out of a fairly low-security prison in rural Texas. Lou Jean had also recently done time for a variety of fairly minor crimes, and she is concerned that the 2 year old son that they have together will be permanently taken from them and placed in the foster system, as he is currently in the custody of a foster family. On the way out of the prison, the Poplins' car is stopped by Officer Slide (Michael Sacks) and after a brief chase, the couple takes the officer hostage and orders him to drive them to their son's current foster home. The trail of their commandeered police vehicle is quickly picked up by Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) and as they drive across the state of Texas, they are followed by a caravan of police vehicles led by Tanner, as he tries to end the standoff peacefully and save Officer Slide's life.
It's unfair to continue comparing this minor film to one, in Badlands, that is studied in film schools, so I'll only say one more thing along those lines, and that is that Malick immediately has an idea for exactly what sort of tone he's looking to strike in his film (contrasting Sissy Spacek's character Holly and her childlike naivete with the sociopathy of Sheen's Kit Carruthers), whereas Spielberg never figures out the tone he wants to set for the story of the Poplins. There is a distinct tenor of "the wacky shenanigans of rural folk" that permeates the film, especially in the first half, so that when Spielberg asks us to care about the fate of the people involved, it's a lot harder than it should be. When the Poplins first break out of prison, they hitch a ride with an older couple who had come to visit their son, and when the car is pulled over by Officer Slide, Lou Jean hijacks it while the couple is out on the road talking to the policeman. Slide tells the older couple to stay there by the side of the road as he takes chase, and they are revisited a couple of times, still standing at the side of the road and gently bickering with one another, for a bit of very low-level comic relief (their fate is ultimately left entirely unresolved by Spielberg, who eventually, for good reasons but still jarringly, abandons the subplot completely.) Later in the film, there is a big pileup crash involving the police convoy which has a very, very distinct Blues Brothers vibe to the way it's shot and edited. And towards the end, as the Poplins and Officer Slide approach their destination, they are greeted by crowds of well-wishers who have staged a makeshift (though surprisingly thorough) carnival at the center of town; less than about 5 minutes later, the violent climax of the Poplins' journey takes place. It's like one of those sitcoms where the couple spends 21 minutes insulting each other, and then in the last minute tack on an unearned bit of sweetness. Spielberg aims towards a sort of heartbreaking poignancy, but the bulk of the film is simply too wacky for it to take hold.
I've never really known Goldie Hawn in anything but late-period self-parody mode; she has a certain relaxed charm here as the fairly dim Lou Jean, although she's in over her head when the script asks her to emote, and while I won't call it a surprise that she presented a confident lead performance here (I knew she'd won an Academy Award early in her career, and that there must be some reason she became a star) it was still nice to be reminded of her effortless ability to be cute and engaging. Atherton and Sacks are fine as her co-stars, neither makes a major impression but Atherton has some nice moments with Hawn, and Sacks has a good scene with the two of them where he attempts to help them work through an argument (he identifies himself as a marriage counseling pro, which is probably true for a lot of real-life lawmen, especially in small towns). The real star of the film is Ben Johnson, who infuses what could be the cliched role of the stern Texas policeman with a real degree of humanity - I would almost recommend the film simply for his performance, which is one in his very long career that I think has been somewhat forgotten. He'd won the Oscar a couple of years prior for playing another, fairly similar Texan in The Last Picture Show, and he had carved out a long career before that playing variations on that character, because he was really, really good at it.
I don't mean to be quite so hard on this film - it is reasonably, though very slightly, successful, and it is narratively coherent even if its tone is all over the place. It doesn't aim that high, and if it is ultimately less interesting than Duel, it is probably because it feels like a film that was supervised much more closely by the people who actually paid for it. What I suspect, just from my own intuition, is that they wanted a light touch which Spielberg ultimately balked out, which is why the film is so internally inconsistent from moment to moment. The graft doesn't completely work, but there are enough small pleasures here to make it a worthy part of Spielberg's canon.