‘Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter One’ Review: Kevin Costner Gets Thrown From His Horse in Muddled Western Epic (2024)

Kevin Costner has been in the saddle long enough to know the difference between a big-screen feature Western like Dances With Wolves, a miniseries like Hatfields & McCoys or a longform like Yellowstone. All those projects have done well by him and he’s done well by them. His connection to the quintessential Americana genre and the rugged lands it calls home is indubitable. So why is his sprawling new frontier tale, Horizon: An American Saga, such a clumsy slog? It plays like a limited series overhauled as a movie, but more like a hasty rough cut than a release ready for any format.

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Running a taxing three hours, this first part of a quartet of films is littered with inessential scenes and characters that go nowhere, taking far too long to connect its messy plot threads. Warner Bros. will release Chapter One in U.S. theaters June 28, with Chapter Two following on August 16 and Chapter Three reportedly going into production. A vigorous montage closes the first part with action-packed snippets from the next installment, adding to the nagging sense that we’re watching episodic TV that lost its way.

Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter One

The Bottom LineIn dire need of narrative streamlining.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Release date: Friday, June 28
Cast: Kevin Costner, Sienna Miller, Sam Worthington, Jena Malone, Owen Crow Shoe, Tatanka Means, Ella Hunt, Tim Guinee, Giovanni Ribisi, Danny Huston, Michael Angarano, Abbey Lee, Luke Wilson, Michael Rooker, Will Patton
Director: Kevin Costner
Screenwriters: Jon Baird, Kevin Costner
Rated R,3 hours 1 minute

What’s most perplexing coming from Costner is the uncomfortably long time the film takes to show sensitivity toward its Indigenous characters. We’re well into Horizon before the perspective on Native resistance is broadened to acknowledge that their murderous attacks on new settlements are a direct response to the occupation of their ancestral lands. It’s very confusing to see a Western in 2024 and find yourself thinking, “Wait, so American Indians are the bad guys again?”

The blustery notes of John Debney’s score over the opening title card announce that we’re about to watch A Work of Great Importance. It begins in Arizona’s San Pedro Valley in 1859, as three surveyors, one of them just a boy, hammer stakes into the ground to mark a plot of riverside land. Two Indigenous kids observing from the rocky hills wonder what the white folks are doing and why they have come. The two adult Native brothers who appear shortly after, Pionsenay (Owen Crow Shoe) and Taklishim (Tatanka Means), are not so much curious as simmering with rage.

Some days later, a solo traveler finds the surveyors’ dead bodies, with feathers laid alongside their corpses as a warning. Those stakes become crosses on their graves.

The action then jumps to Montana Territory, where Lucy (Jena Malone) empties a rifle into James Sykes (Charles Halford), a man who has clearly wronged her, then takes off with their infant son. The dead man’s tough family matriarch (Dale Dickey) sends her two sons, Caleb (Jamie Campbell Bower) and Junior (Job Beavers), to dole out retribution and bring back her grandchild. One is a hotheaded idiot, the other smarter and more controlled, plus he can rock a silver wolf stole.

Meanwhile, back at the river, the new township of Horizon — advertised on widely distributed handbills — has sprung up directly across from those three graves. But any sense of security is instantly erased when Pionsenay and Taklishim lead a deadly ambush. Acting against the advice of their father (Gregory Cruz), an elder of the White Mountain Apache tribe who warns of the inevitable cycle of violence, they kill any settlers unable to get to safety and torch structures that have only just been erected.

In the movie’s most visceral sequence, the tribesmen close in on the home of the Kittredge family. Along with a handful of community members who have gone there for shelter, the father, James (Tim Guinee), and teenage son Nate (the director’s son Hayes Costner) try to hold off the attackers while the mother Frances (Sienna Miller) and daughter Lizzie (Georgia MacPhail) hide out in a hatch under the floorboards.

The flimsiest strand follows Russell (Etienne Kellici), an adolescent boy who manages to outride the Apache horsem*n pursuing him, then later wrestles with his conscience about how and against whom to take revenge for his losses. That thread feels like one too many, but it makes the point that white folks regard all Indigenous tribes as a single enemy, meaning payback is indiscriminate.

Working from a discursive screenplay he co-wrote with Jon Baird, Costner is not at his best as a director with this kind of multi-branched narrative. He struggles to keep all the story’s plates spinning, as characters are sidelined and resurface with too little connective tissue.

It’s almost an hour into the film before Costner appears as Hayes Ellison, a taciturn loner described by one of the Sykes boys as a “saddle tramp.” The role allows Kev to go full Clint, conveying the inner conflict of a troubled man wishing to leave violence behind but skilled enough with a firearm to handle it when provoked. Presumably, the character will reveal more layers and maybe a backstory in Chapter Two.

Hayes is the figure who begins to tie things together when he ambles into a small township and catches the eye of Marigold (Abbey Lee), who turns tricks to get by and babysits for Lucy, now going by Ellen and married to good-natured Walter Childs (Michael Angarano). Marigold is an annoying character — dumb, whiny, opportunistic — and it’s a slight stretch that a man as careworn and solitary as Hayes would be suckered into helping her, putting them both in danger. The unconvincing performance of Lee does nothing to make Marigold more palatable.

Other characters include the cavalry summoned to Horizon after the massacre, dispatched by Colonel Houghton (Danny Huston) and led by Sgt. Major Riordan (Michael Rooker) and First Lieutenant Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington), who gently strikes up a romance toward the end of the film. Gephardt is the one person patient enough to explain to the folks of Horizon why the Apaches are hostile to the idea of sharing land on which they have hunted for generations.

Despite the harsh conditions and extreme danger involved in the expansion of the West, wagon trains of new settlers keep coming. Traveling with one of them is military captain Matthew Van Weyden (Luke Wilson), who lands the exasperating job of de facto leader, dealing with disputes and ensuring that everyone contributes to the workload. That comes as a surprise to a couple of over-educated but clueless Brits begging to be scalped, Juliette (Ella Hunt) and Hugh (Tom Payne).

Any of these plotlines might have sustained an hour of compelling television but they don’t add up to much in this awkwardly stitched quilt, which rarely provides the space for anyone’s experiences to resonate. That also limits the scope for the actors to breathe much dimensionality into their roles. Dialogue-driven scenes often feel stilted and lifeless; the characters played by Costner, Worthington, Miller and Malone at this point show the most potential.

The subtitle An American Saga and some easy guesswork suggest that as Horizon continues the project will become a broad-canvas picture of frontier life and its challenges, of the constant threat of outlaws and Indigenous attack, and the injustices toward Natives that indelibly stained the soil of the West with blood. Hopefully, it will also acquire some much-needed structure.

In the meantime, the movie serves up handsomely photographed virgin American landscapes, with red cliffs, green valleys and wide open plains providing some arresting backdrops. (As is often the case, Utah locations stand in for various parts of the Southwest and Montana.) Period design elements evoke the milieu more than serviceably.

For many Western lovers of a certain age, Costner in a form-fitting role will be a reassuring presence. He was never an actor with the broadest range, but always appealing — even when he arrives late, as he does here, and remains on the glum side. Just don’t build up your hopes too much.

‘Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter One’ Review: Kevin Costner Gets Thrown From His Horse in Muddled Western Epic (2024)

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