Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 Review

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1

Release date: 28 June 2024 (USA)
Director: Kevin Costner
Story by: Jon Baird; Kevin Costner; Mark Kasdan
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $100 million (Chapter 1 and 2)
Cinematography: J. Michael Muro

The directors of “How The West Was Won” were Henry Hathaway, George Marshall and John Ford over sixty years ago. It was a massive project. Filmed using the three-strip Cinerama process, it boasted an incredibly large ensemble cast — James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Thelma Ritter et al. — and a story that seemed to stretch further than the country itself. Its tale is one of (white) people’s tenacity to conquer the land, themselves and those already living there too; it suffers from grandiosity, competing visions and regressive politics. But there’s something about the very audacity of it that’s mystifying.

While making his latest work as a director — a three-hour-long “Horizon: An American Saga—Chapter 1,” which seeks to re-write wrongs in the same glutted system of its most similar film cousin — Kevin Costner must have had this movie at the front of his mind.

“Horizon” isn’t trying to subvert the Western; it relies on many well-worn tropes as well. It is also a slow burn with intersecting stories that takes so long to get going that Costner doesn’t appear on screen until an hour in; instead the first third of “Horizon” is just a long pre-amble oratory around one film grinding down and not standing up as its own feature against another. In fact there could be two movies here: A sizzle reel ending Chapter One teases out all kinds of high-motoring films we might get but don’t necessarily find ourselves in here.

Instead Chapter One limps into San Pedro Valley Arizona Territory 1859 with a family surveying land by a creek getting gruesomely murdered by Apache warriors who are none too pleased at finding white outsiders on their land only for more white people to come settle down in a town guarded by armed citizens. At nightfall, during a town dance, the Apache warriors return; the grisly, vicious massacre — edited frankly, composed bluntly against rumbling flames and deafening screams to where it feels like breathing — happens in the background. Some of the townsfolk survive; some decide to hunt down their attackers in a bid for revenge; others, like Lizzie (Georgia MacPhail) and her mother Frances (Sienna Miller), leave with the Union Army led by Lt. Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington) for the relative safety of a fort.

The first hour of the show seems to drag on for eternity and doesn’t do much to make you care about these people. They’re nameless folks with no obvious connections to each other, which only become vaguely clear by the end. Then we’re whisked away to the Wyoming Territory and introduced to some new characters. Costner plays Hayes Ellison, a horse trader among many things. He befriends local sex worker Marigold (a creaky Abbey Lee), who is hunted by a band of gunmen because of a secret she’s hiding. The series gains a slight pulse when Costner enters the picture — that low, gruff voice is unmistakable — but even then he feels like an afterthought. As if Costner, the filmmaker and writer (he co-wrote with Jon Baird), knows how tall of a task he has in front of him introducing all these main players at once. So his presence winds up being one of many elements that would have benefited from being briefer.

The final arc, introduced in what feels like hour 17, is where it finally starts cooking: It involves a wagon train making its way through Montana territory with an unlikely cast of characters. Luke Wilson, as the head of this traveling group, is also the strongest actor here; he’s more than a shadow of a Western archetype, imbuing Matthew Van Weyden with some much-needed groundedness.

As much as Costner tries to play an even hand and give both Indigenous and settler perspective equal time and attention — yes, we meet the family whose Apache warriors are hunting down all these random folks; no, they don’t get nearly as much screen time as their white counterparts — it doesn’t fully work out that way. Nor does it help that our white women characters are so clean and luminous (and I mean LUMINOUS — there’s not a speck of dust on them despite the fact that they’re living in a dirt hovel) that they look positively angelic. Or that the score is equally telling: It’s a glorious, big, triumphant Old Hollywood score whose most sympathetic notes are reserved for the film’s white characters. Costner does at least assemble a diverse cast, nodding toward the presence of Black people and Chinese immigrants in the history of the West, which is beautifully captured by DP J. Michael Muro as it traces across this vast sumptuously photographed landscape.

While “Horizon” teases a kind of conspiracy theory — some mysterious publisher is printing up pamphlets promising a land of milk and honey that turns out to be nothing but occupied by death or whatever — I can’t help but continue to think about “How The West Was Won.” That Western was ultimately sunk by both the era it was made in and genre conventions like forced feeble romances; “Horizon” arrives in a more “enlightened” time, thanks to movies like “Killer of the Flower Moon” and TV shows like “Reservation Dogs,” “Wild Indian,” “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open,” “Beans,” etc., all made by Indigenous people. That presence puts even more pressure on Costner. And so far he hasn’t entirely overcome being Kevin Costner in 2021 making movies about Indians (or his own vanity). That filmmaker still exists here, for better or worse.

This film sets up future movies well within the “Horizon” series. Following his departure from “Yellowstone,” Costner’s momentum is further pushed in one direction. Nonetheless, this movie alone is a bore. Rarely does it deliver what people want: Costner on the open range. Besides Costner himself, there are few memorable characters — I couldn’t tell you any of their names without checking my notes. It seems like a fatal error to rely on potential sequels for the entire premise to land.

Watch Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 For Free On Gomovies.

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