Hawn is Lou Jean Poplin, a petty criminal two weeks out of jail, who arrives at the "pre-release" minimum-security facility holding her dimwitted husband Clovis (William Atherton), another petty criminal who has four months left on his sentence. Lou Jean insists on breaking Clovis out of jail immediately, because the government has taken their two-year-old son away and put him in foster care.
Lou Jean sneaks Clovis past the guards, and they hitch a ride, meaning to get to Sugarland, Texas, where their boy is living. But after a patrolman, Officer Slide (Michael Sacks), pulls their driver over for driving unsafely, Lou Jean panics and steals the car. She crashes it, but when Slide finds them she steals his gun and kidnaps him. This leads to an extraordinary low-speed chase, as Clovis and Lou Jean take Slide at gunpoint across Texas to Sugarland, as a caravan of police cars follows, and citizens turn out at the roadside to cheer the fugitives on.
The Sugarland Express is remembered today for being the feature debut for its director. Spielberg, 27 years old at the time, had been working in television since 1969, including the 1971 TV movie Duel. The Sugarland Express did poorly at the box office but didn't stop Spielberg from getting hired for his next project, Jaws. Sugarland is also notable for being the first film to use the Panaflex camera, a compact camera that allowed Spielberg to get complicated panning shots from inside a moving car. William Atherton later made a career out of playing obnoxious pricks in films like Die Hard and Ghostbusters.
The film is also noteworthy as the first collaboration of Spielberg and composer John Williams.
- Deconstruction: A somewhat comical one, for the Bonnie and Clyde kind of "rogue couple" films. Q: What sort of couple would go out and thumb their noses at law and order and expect to get away with it? A: A couple without their heads on straight.
- Department of Child Disservices: Lou Jean's opinion, at least, as Child Welfare has taken her little boy away.
- Downer Ending: A rare instance of this in the Spielberg canon. Clovis dies, Lou Jean goes to prison, and they don't get their baby. Somewhat softened by the closing title card which says that Lou Jean got paroled after serving fifteen months, and eventually reclaimed her son.
- Drive-In Theater: Lou Jean and Clovis are temporarily freed from the police caravan after another pair of cops try to ram their car as an Indy Ploy, only to wind up causing a wreck that blocks the caravan. They wind up taking refuge at a drive-in and watching a Road Runner vs. Coyote cartoon. Clovis, who is a little bit more in touch with reality than Lou Jean, identifies with the doomed coyote.
- Drives Like Crazy: Lou Jean closes her eyes while fleeing at high speed from Officer Slade. After she crashes the car, she isn't allowed to drive again.
- Driver Faces Passenger: The old guy that Lou Jean and Clovis hitch a ride from outside the prison thinks nothing of turning around and chatting with them from the driver's seat, as his car is going 25 mph on the open highway. This draws the attention of Officer Slide, starting the series of disasters.
- Empathy Doll Shot: At the climax, as they careen towards the border with the cops in hot pursuit while Clovis bleeds to death, Lou Jean loses it, and starts chucking all their stuff out the window. Among the things she throws out are a pair of shoes for the baby, and a teddy bear, which gets run over.
- Every Car Is a Pinto: One of the cars at the dealership goes up in a big explosion as Clovis and Lou Jean are engaged in a shootout with some reserve deputies.
- Funny Background Event: When the cops find the crashed car—Officer Slide had called for an ambulance before Lou Jean and Clovis kidnap him—two tow truckers are seen in the background, arguing over who gets to tow the car away. They continue to scuffle in the background as the police talk in the foreground, and the scene ends with one driver punching the other one out. This was unfortunately edited out of the original videocassette release.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Lou Jean, who sexes up Clovis in a men's restroom, badgers him into making a stupid escape from prison, and then leads him on a madcap adventure. It turns out badly for Clovis.
- Outlaw Couple: Although Clovis and Lou Jean are really just petty crooks, and become an Outlaw Couple more or less by accident.
- Potty Dance: Lou Jean does this after saying she needs to pee, much to Clovis's irritation, as she passed up a bathroom at an earlier stop.
- Real Person Cameo: Kenneth Crone, the officer who was kidnapped in the 1969 incident that inspired this film, appears as a deputy.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: The captain played by Ben Johnson. He talks to Clovis in a reasonable tone, and prevents the sharpshooting Texas rangers from taking a shot at the couple, even though they say there's a 90% chance of success, because he doesn't want to see anyone get hurt.
- A Simple Plan: Hitch a ride to Sugarland, snatch the baby, drive away. What could go wrong?
- Stockholm Syndrome: Officer Slide has clearly fallen victim to this by the time that he's trying to teach Clovis how to hotwire a car. At the climax, Slide sniffs out the trap that the cops have laid for Clovis and tells him not to go in, but Lou Jean insists that he go, and Clovis gets shot.
- Toplessness from the Back: Lou Jean, as she undresses in the trailer that she and Clovis have broken into.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The opening title card says the movie is based on a true event that happened in Texas in 1969, but much was changed. The wife didn't break the husband out of jail; he had been paroled two weeks earlier. They were not setting out to see their kid, but were just driving around when the officer tried to pull them over. They didn't kidnap the cop on the spur of the moment, but instead called for help with the idea of hijacking the police car. And while the story in the film unfolds over a couple of days, the real-life incident only took a few hours.
- Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Lou Jean pretends to be hurt worse than she really is after she wrecks the car so that Officer Slide will have to carry her out of the car, so she can get his gun.