Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 Review

Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis swept up at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but another director (who also put it all on the line financially) quietly debuted a passion project of his own. Given how much of his own money writer/director/star Kevin Costner poured into this proposed four-film series, you can’t help but want him to succeed. Critics laud ambition, but the life force of Hollywood is box-office receipts. Yellowstone may tap into the Westerns market on streaming, but moviegoers haven’t been too kind to the genre lately. This summer has also been cruel to big box-office releases (The Fall Guy, Furiosa), and one can’t help but think that streak may continue with Horizon.

If it goes out as a flop, there are worse ways to spend your money than filming in beautiful vistas like southern Utah and Arizona. Despite how much Costner has riding on this, he’s patient. Don’t expect his face to be the first thing you see in the film; he won’t appear until about an hour in. Likely to be one of the common complaints about the film, the pacing sprawls as much as the landscapes captured by J. Michael Muro. But if you look at Horizon: Chapter One as an extended pilot, it won’t seem as odd that characters appear and reappear with no consistency. Like any pilot, some characters are more interesting than others. Not since How the West Was Won has there been such a stacked cast. Costner, Sienna Miller, Sam Worthington, Jena Malone, Michael Angarano, Dale Dickey, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Rooker, Kathleen Quinlan, Luke Wilson, Will Patton, Jamie Campbell Bower, and Danny Huston all appear, although some performances are little more than extended intros for pending sequels.

The film spans four bloody years of Civil War and the emotional escape valve the West presented to a country that cleaved itself in half. The promise of America is there, though we rarely live up to it. Costner earnestly believes in the concept but knows it exists as a projection for people to latch on to. Fittingly, the film’s namesake town proves similarly hard to grasp. The first three settlers of Horizon die while establishing the boundary. Countless more die when the town gets razed 30 minutes into the film. Yet, stubbornly, the droves of citizens keep coming, doing their damnedest to make something of the land. Even as the memorial to the town’s fallen sits looking down at them from the hill above. The America that Costner presents feels oddly haunted, seen through the lens of families and friends who’ve lost much in trekking to the new frontier.

And the loss is immediate. An extended massacre opens the narrative, where a a group of Apache lead an attack on a San Pedro Valley settlement. Many families perish, but there is a focus on the Kittredges. Specifically, Frances (Sienna Miller) and her daughter Lizzie (Georgia MacPhail), who figure prominently in Horizon and its future sequels. The massacre isn’t used for a jingoistic call to arms however, Costner’s heart is in the right place. Even if the results wind up as well-intentioned patronizing.

The cavalry, led by Lt. Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington), arrives too late, demanding to know what the survivors are doing there. The settlers, it seems, were illegally occupying Apache territory. When Pionsenay’s (Owen Crow Shoe) war party returns, he faces similar scrutiny. The tribe’s chief reprimands the celebrating young men with a warning of things to come. “The men are gone. But where they’ve been, thousands will come.” A foreboding statement that hints at how the San Pedro Valley incident will repeat itself moving forward. Settlers and soldiers will use the event to inflame the country, committing atrocities in the name of Manifest destiny.

Costner’s romanticizes the Old West with top-dollar production design and a sweeping score by John Debney. Many of the great recent Westerns deconstructed the genre and icons therein, but Horizon has no interest in that. Hayes Ellison (Costner) is one of your prime Western archetypes. We meet him as he arrives in Wyoming, sends a letter home, and then promptly brawls with a stranger. Hayes is a seasoned killer, but he lives with regret, hoping to start over in the fields of the West. Of course, he won’t find that peace, not with blackhat Caleb Sykes (Jamie Campbell Bower) gunning down whoever he wants.

Every actor performs admirably, creating moments that are rarely dull, but character arcs and pathos power Westerns. Without a lot of plot development, the emotion can’t take a hold on the viewers. Hints of story to come look promising, but no one knows how it will turn out. Time and audiences might be kinder to Horizon once more of the saga hits theatres. Chapter Two debuts in August, while production on Three and Four is on standby until the audience demand dictates a greenlight. All the pieces of a classic Western are there but until a clearer picture of what Horizon is appears, it’s difficult to grade.

The passion is there, details are impeccably crafted, and the feel onscreen is always epic. Some might criticize Costner for not simply taking this to a streamer, but I understand the lure for the actor/writer/director. There’s just something amazing about making a film of this scale on the largest screen possible. It’s the sort of movie star move we respect Tom Cruise for, so it would be hypocritical to attack Costner for that same ambition. With his profile increased by Yellowstone, Costner won’t pass on such a golden opportunity.

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Hopefully, audiences will reward the effort.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 hits theatres Friday, June 28.

Watch Jason Gorber’s Cannes review of Horizon after the film’s May premiere.



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