Horizon: An American Saga Review – Kevin Costner’s Epic Disappointment?

Horizon: An American Saga Review – Kevin Costner’s Epic Disappointment?

And there’s something undeniably admirable about Horizon: An American Saga on gumption alone. Kevin Costner has already rescued his career (since Yellowstone won us over, he’s left the television sensation he helped originated for cable’s green pastures). After a string of new films that have ennobled his name but failed to ignite the box office, the streaming drama/comedy/screwball hybrid Teddy (2022) has tiptoed Cast Away (2000) into the realm of success.

Now Costner has decamped to the dunes to complete the trinity and write, direct and star in an old-fashioned Western epic, a frontier saga in serial form stretching out over years, across hundreds of acres and numerous instalments. What could be a more just use of career capital than achieving the fulfilment of your passion project? After decades of proudly carrying the torch for the unfashionable genre, Costner has earned the right to indulge in a supersized tribute to its virtues.

But somewhere in the long, long middle of Horizon’s interminable first chapter (its second arrives in August and two others are reportedly in ‘development’), an irony starts to drape itself over this three-hour mess of horse-opera shibboleths and loosely aligned subplots. The other oaters Costner has directed — his Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves and the later Open Range — were sweeping, stately dramas that recalled, amid a minimum of throwback fuss, an older age of studio epic.

Horizon certainly aims for the breezy spirit of the Western (it is modern only in its thin-slivered, mildly enlightened politics), but the plotting suggests nothing so much as a swellingly portentous miniseries expanding out in multiple directions. It’s almost as if Costner, having succeeded beyond his wildest dreams on the small screen, has turned in his spats for a triumphant return to the big screen only to make a movie that is basically television.

“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

Horizon: An American Saga

The script, which he co-wrote with Jon Baird (you know where this is headed), awkwardly flips between no fewer than four distinct storylines, spread across the West of 1859, right in the middle of the Civil War. Across 181 interminable minutes, Costner will jump from Arizona to Montana to Wyoming to Kansas, following half a dozen or so dozen characters, several of whom don’t show up until well into the second hour. (Plenty more, judging by the actors in the credits for Horizon, will be along in Chapter 1 before you even get to the second.)

The titular town – situated, in the film’s nominal centre, on the river from which it takes its name – is the place where, this summer, Costner’s multiple snaky plot threads will presumably meet. But Horizon’s ownership of land not yet stolen from the Indigenous has also marked it as a target for the Apache, who raid the community in the first major action sequence.

The outcome is a horrifically comic set piece in which the settlers emerge to find a ghoulish graveyard scattered with mud, surplus hair and busted skulls, only two of whom – a mother (Sienna Miller) and her apple-cheeked daughter (Georgia MacPhail) – suspected. Horizon’s first dream-like act hints at the possibility of a fiery colonial reckoning, in the dead of night, before Costner gets syniac about things. There’s a fine line between classical and stolid, and Horizon falls on the stolid side plenty of times.

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

Marauding Nativa Americans, of course, were an essential component of the type of classic Westerns that Horizon is in part revisiting. Costner, whose Dances with Wolves represented an apologetic reversal in how tribes had typically been depicted in Hollywood, isn’t attempting to reverse the mechanism of that reversal in order to restore the unapologetic racism of those older pictures.

The architect of the massacre, a tough-minded Apache warrior named Pionsenay (Owen Crow Shoe), sees violence as the only means of deterring white interlopers from inevitably forcing them off the land. If he’s Horizon’s villain, he’s a far more sympathetic one than anyone else. But his motivation is a bit half-hearted, perhaps even perfunctory, at least in this first iteration. Costner makes it pretty plain that he’s salivating to get through his and get to the other ones.

The first hour is cloying sledding, in large part because Horizon starts with those earliest minutes of everyone scowling crossly in their Old West gear; never has a posse been assembled with so little hobnobbing beforehand. As in so many Clint Eastwood productions, the relative newcomers look a little out at sea. Horizon accordingly grows more satisfying with its star power.

The loosest, most casual performance of Sam Worthington’s career comes in Horizon as a genial soldier circumspectly drifting into a romance with Miller’s widow; before his turns in Pandora, Worthington appears to have loved every minute of what life brought him. Is being in Pandora sexifying him, or does he simply look a little Laurence Olivier compared with some of the others around him? Costner gets a lot out of Luke Wilson as well, whom he casts here in the central part of the leader of a wagon train reluctantly hauling the film’s third crop of actors into the multicoloured gumbo.

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

But Horizon never quite tips over into vanity project, and Costner – who is nowhere to be seen for nearly an hour – hands himself a bravura entrance: up he rides, right to the lens, with a swell of music. A gruff-mannered horse trader hiding a (well, let’s not be coy: who wasn’t, in a Western?) extraordinary underslung gift for gunslinging, his Costner-iest hero yet is on a mission to Vancouver.

He talks his way into the role of make-believe bodyguard for a golden-tressed prostitute (Abbey Lee) and her small charge, but Horizon never privileges that thread over any of the others. Still, it’s all the better for Costner’s star-wattage, his laidback charisma.

His identity as a filmmaker seems conflicted: whether to surrender to the mythic romanticism of the Wild West or to question its moral murkiness. The dark-est arc in Horizon is of a boy who enlists in the cavalry but his eagerness curdles into guilt when he witnesses his hunting party — assembled to avenge the men killed in the massacre depicted in the film’s opening sequence — tear through a tribe, scalping anyone in reach of the supply wagon.

Vengeance, the movie intones, is merely another wheel of capitalism. Elsewhere, the script seems to roll up its sleeves and barge into the town square for a hearty round of hand-wringing: In one tin-eared conversation, the characters literally muse on the inevitability of Manifest Destiny as though time-travelling history professors. But no scene of fictional speechifying can be wholly bad if it’s Danny Huston and Michael Rooker doing the speaking.

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

If he tries to bank enough nuances to make it grey for Hayes, Costner can’t resist colour-coding his sprawling cast of characters: cowboys good and bad, men with manners and marksmanship; good little girls spooning out bad then batting their eyelashes at the cowpokes.

All the meaner for being milquetoasted, modern men who haven’t the guts or stomach to defend their damsels from gang-rape. Naturally, Costner delivers the nastiest weasels and bullies he can conjure, feeding his slimmed-down bull nightmare with relish.

And what could be more fun than blowing them away? Costner’s wasting misfit after puny punk in a drawn-out, escalating scene where his Hayes Ellison bristles at the jabbering meanness of a scrawny, twerpy little troublemaker. The two wander up a hillside that is, in fact, a ramp to since-dueled pistols. It’s little more than a souped-up vanity play to violence, all grinding Cowboy plod and Tarantino time without the pop.

And here’s the irony: pace is what kills Horizon. The film strolls and staggers, goes nowhere slowly. By its end, its mammoth runtime has barely logged a few plot-miles. It’s all set-up, an endless drip-feed of introductions and inciting incidents, the grist of an overlong pilot for a show you wouldn’t hang around to watch.

Then it just stops, dead — crassly rack-focused to a glorified ‘next time on’ ad for the gunfights to come. Maybe it’s unkind to judge Chapter 1 on its own terms. It’s clearly one part of a larger creation, and all these fingers of action will likely come together in Chapter 2. Then again, who knows? With Costner still hard at work on more, anything like an end — or even a story as such — might still be many miles from the horizon.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 is now playing in theaters everywhere. 

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