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Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 review: Costner’s Western is an epic bore

Kevin Costner stares with cowboy flintiness in a still from Horizon: An American Saga—Chapter 1
Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 review: Costner’s Western is an epic bore
“Costner has abandoned his small-screen success for a triumphant return to the big screen, only to make a movie that’s basically television.”
Pros
  • Some good performances
  • Costner's star power
  • We deserve more Westerns
Cons
  • It's ungodly long
  • It's half a story at best
  • It's plotted like a bad TV pilot

It’s tempting to celebrate Horizon: An American Saga on grounds of gumption alone. Having successfully revived his career with Yellowstone, Kevin Costner has taken leave of that television sensation, riding off into the sunset in pursuit of a grander ambition: to write, direct, and star in an old-fashioned Western opus, a frontier story spanning years, long stretches of country, and multiple installments. Is there a better use of career capital than the realization of a passion project? After decades of carrying the torch for this unfashionable genre, Costner has earned the indulgence of a supersized tribute to its values.

But somewhere in the middle of Horizon’s interminable first chapter (its second arrives in August, with two more in some stage of development), an irony begins to settle over this three-hour tangle of horse-opera archetypes and loosely connected subplots. The other oaters Costner has directed — his Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves and the later Open Range — were sweeping, stately dramas that recalled, with a minimum of throwback fuss, an older era of Hollywood epic. Horizon certainly reaches for the vintage spirit of the Western (it’s modern only in its marginally enlightened politics), but the plotting suggests nothing so much as a bloated miniseries stretching outward in multiple directions. It’s as if Costner has abandoned his small-screen success for a triumphant return to the big screen, only to make a movie that’s basically television.

Horizon: An American Saga | Official Trailer #2

The script, which he wrote with Jon Baird (this is where the problems begin), gracelessly juggles no fewer than four separate narratives, spread across the West of 1859, right on the cusp of the Civil War. Over 181 very long minutes, Costner will leap from Arizona to Montana to Wyoming to Kansas, tracking numerous characters, some of them not even appearing until well into the second hour. (There are more introductions to come, too, judging from the actors attached to Horizon who don’t show up in Chapter 1.)

The nominal center of the story, the point on the map where Costner’s various winding plot trails will presumably converge later this summer, is the eponymous riverside settlement. Horizon’s position on land not yet stolen from the Indigenous has made it a target of the Apache, who launch a nighttime raid on the community in the film’s first big set piece, leaving only two hidden survivors: a mother (Sienna Miller) and her apple-cheeked daughter (Georgia MacPhail). The sequence is meant to be a nightmare — a fiery colonial reckoning in dead of night — but Costner is gun shy about the carnage. There’s a fine line between classical and stodgy, and Horizon crosses it often.

A woman looks over in Horizon: An American Saga.
New Line Cinema

Marauding Native Americans were, of course, a fixture of the classic Westerns the film is in part evoking. Costner, whose Dances with Wolves reflected an apologetic shift in how tribes were long portrayed by Hollywood, isn’t looking to revive the blatant racism of those older films. The architect of the massacre, an Apache warrior named Pionsenay (Owen Crow Shoe), sees violence as the only viable deterrent to white interlopers eventually forcing them off the land. If he’s a villain of Horizon, he’s much more sympathetic than the others. But the interest in his motives feels a bit perfunctory, even obligatory, at least in this inaugural entry. Costner plainly can’t wait to get through his scenes and on to others.

The opening hour is rough sledding, thanks largely to those early moments in Horizon, where mostly unknown actors evince a certain community-theater stiffness in their Old West costumes. As in many Clint Eastwood productions, the less-seasoned performers look a little stranded. Horizon accordingly picks up as its star power increases. Sam Worthington, as a gentlemanly soldier drifting hesitantly into a romance with Miller’s widow, delivers one of the loosest, most charming performances of his career. Has his time in Pandora livened him up, or does he just look like Laurence Olivier compared to some of those around him? Costner gets a lot out of Luke Wilson, too, whom he casts as the reluctant leader of a wagon train that hauls a new bounty of actors into the overstuffed picture.

Cowboys stand in a field in Horizon: An American Saga.
New Line Cinema

Horizon never quite becomes a vanity project. Costner, after all, doesn’t show up for nearly an hour. He does hand himself a striking entrance: riding straight up to the camera with a swell of music. His character, a horse trader hiding a secret (if unsurprising) talent for gunslinging, is a classic Costner hero, rugged but oddly polite. He ends up stumbling into the role of makeshift bodyguard for a golden-tressed prostitute (Abbey Lee) and a small child, but Horizon doesn’t privilege that strand of the story over any of the others. Nonetheless, the movie only benefits from Costner’s star power, his relaxed gravitas.

As a filmmaker, he seems torn between indulging the mythic romanticism of the Wild West and interrogating its moral ambiguities. Horizon’s bleakest storyline involves a young boy whose eagerness to join the cavalry curdles as he witnesses his own hunting party — assembled to find the perpetrators of the massacre in Horizon — tear through a random tribe, indiscriminately collecting scalps that can be sold. Vengeance, the movie says, becomes just another wheel of capitalism. Elsewhere, the script gets more heavy-handed in its handwringing: One tin-earned conversation finds the characters pontificating on the inevitability of Manifest Destiny like time-traveling history professors. Then again, no scene of implausible speechifying can be all bad when it’s Danny Huston and Michael Rooker delivering the speeches.

A man stands and looks at a mountain in Horizon: An American Saga.
New Line Cinema

For all the gray areas Costner grazes, he can’t help but divide his massive cast of characters into stock roles: cowboys with good manners and better marksmanship; damsels batting their eyes at them; weak, milquetoast modern men unable or unwilling to defend their wives; sadistic scoundrels. Costner takes special delight in disposing of the latter. There’s a long, escalating scene where his Hayes Ellison deflects the insults of a scrawny, antagonizing murderer, the two wandering up a hillside that’s really a ramp to foregone dueling pistols. It’s a slow play to violence, Tarantino-esque in pace but not flair.

Pace, as it turns out, is what downs Horizon. The film ambles and meanders, going nowhere slowly. By the end of its mammoth runtime, the plot has barely inched forward. It’s all setup, an endless parade of introductions and inciting incidents, like the grist of an overlong pilot for a show you wouldn’t finish. And then the film just stops dead in its tracks, cutting jarringly to a glorified “next time on” trailer advertising the gunplay to come. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge Chapter 1 on its own terms. It’s plainly one part of a larger story, and all these strands of action will presumably come together in Chapter 2. Then again, who knows? With Costner hard at work on more, anything like an ending — or even a story proper — could still be a mere speck on the distant horizon.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 is now playing in theaters everywhere. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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