2.5 out of 5 stars

The quality for which Horizon: An American Saga will likely be best remembered is the overreach on the part of its producer, star, co-writer, and director, Kevin Costner. His current plan for his latest Western is to release it theatrically in four separate chapters over the next few years. Altogether, that could amount to a 12-hour running time.

With the first two chapters completed, and the third currently in production, the fate of chapter four seems uncertain considering the lukewarm reception the first chapter has received thus far. In another indication of the film’s uncertain future, the company that runs the two cinemas in my town elected to screen Horizon at its smaller screen venue instead of the main screen.

Based on that, and my experience watching it, the outlook appears bleak.

Horizon: An American Saga—Chapter 1 attempts to weave together three stories over its three-hour running time. We open in 1859, two years before the American Civil War, on a quiet, realistic note as three unnamed settlers stake their claim in the San Pedro Valley in the middle of the Arizona desert. Inspired in part by the ideology of Manifest Destiny, they’ve been sold on this beautiful, but hardly idyllic, desertscape by a sales brochure, whipped up by an Eastern land speculator who laid claim to the valley and named it Horizon, likely without ever setting foot there. In place of the promised milk and honey, there are only root vegetables and antelope meat. Although a pretty river runs through it, the soil remains infertile, baked dry and rocky by a blistering sun.

Meanwhile, as these lone settlers stake their claims, a subgroup of a nearby Chiricahua Apache tribe, led by the hot-headed Pionsenay (Owen Crow Shoe), watch from the rocky hills. Some weeks later, a fourth settler arrives, a missionary named Desmarais (Angus MacFadyen), who finds the first settlers dead, killed by the Apache. Despite the clear danger, he decides to stay. His faith is rewarded as a couple of years pass during which the Horizon settlement grows into a small, semi-prosperous tent city (curiously without further attacks by the Apache).

But then, one night, Pionsenay and his band—against the wise counsel of their chief, Tuayeseh (Gregory Cruz)—strike again, burning down the settlement and massacring the settlers. Only a handful survive, among them Francis Kittredge (Sienna Miller), her daughter, Elizabeth (Georgia MacPhail), and the orphaned young Russell (Etienne Kellici).

The next day, the US Cavalry rides in, led by Lieutenant Gephardt (Sam Worthington) and Sergeant Major Riordan (Michael Rooker). They take the survivors to Fort Gallant, where commandant Colonel Houghton (Danny Huston) provides a fatalistic view of the future of the West, declaring that the westward migration was spurred by more than just a desire to displace the Native American peoples who were there first. The larger forces at work are too powerful for any army to halt.

Whilst Francis and Elizabeth recover from their ordeal, young Russell, yearning for bloody revenge, is taken under the wing of another survivor of the massacre, Elias Janney (Scott Haze), who leads him into a murderous alliance with a villainous band of scalp hunters, led by Tracker (Jeff Fahey), who care not who they kill, as long as they’re paid for it.

That seems like plenty of story for a solid two-hour Western (or, with some fleshing out, a four-part streaming series). However, the film suddenly turns its attention north to the Montana Territory where horse-trader Hayes Ellison (Kevin Costner) rides into a grubby mining camp. Also in the camp is a young businessman, Walter Childs (Michael Angarano),with his new wife, Ellen (Jena Malone), and her son from a previous marriage, Sam, in tow. Childs is trying to foist a salted mining claim on some unsuspecting dupes. The deal collapses violently when it turns out the potential buyers are actually the sons of Ellen’s abusive and wealthy ex-husband, James Sykes (Charles Halford), who wants her and Sam back in his clutches, regardless of the cost in lives.

Here, horse-trader Ellison steps up as a Shane-like saviour, gunning down James’s son Caleb Sykes (played with delicious malice by Jamie Campbell Bower), then taking the boy and his minder, a heart-of-gold hooker named Marigold (Abbey Lee), into the mountains with the Sykes clan in hot pursuit.

While we’re piecing that episode together and trying to link it to the first one, we’re suddenly whisked away to Kansas, where a wagon train is escorting pioneers to the Horizon settlement. Among the many passengers are a pair of greenhorns, a well-bred, fastidious (and seemingly unwed) English couple, Ella (Juliette Chesney) and Tom (Hugh Proctor). Their blithe naivety and privileged airs sorely tempt their fellow pioneers to abandon them to the elements and the Natives lurking in the hills. The suspense hinges on whether this pair will make it alive to the Horizon settlement.

Finally, near the three-hour mark, with the narratives fraying and myself and my fellow audience members starting to squirm, the film decides we’ve had enough and ends like a streaming series episode would, with a hurried trailer previewing the next chapter—due in cinemas on 16 August 2024. However, I fear that by that time audiences may well have moved on.

If you’re thinking Horizon would make an excellent cable/streaming Western series of around 12 episodes, I’d say that sounds spot on. While Westerns may never return to their former big screen glory, the genre has shown recent signs of life on the small screen, thanks principally to writer-director-producer Taylor Sheridan. His television shows Yellowstone, 1883, 1923, and Lawman: Bass Reeves have all been successful productions that brought new audiences to this most quintessential American film genre, which, until now, seemed about to lose its grip on us forever.

While Westerns are riding high on the small screen, big-screen Westerns face the same challenge as all feature films these days—persuading audiences to leave the comfort of their homes. Unfortunately, this film fails to make that case.

Horizon also contends with another factor: the unwavering vision of producer-star Costner. Having starred in Yellowstone for its first five seasons, he gambled by sacrificing his role there for this film—perhaps an unwise decision.

Costner has been nurturing the idea for Horizon since 1988, even before his Academy Award-winning New Age Western Dances with Wolves (1991). He seems to have overlooked the implications of Yellowstone’s and Sheridan’s other successes. He appears stuck in the past, hoping to repeat the success of both Dances with Wolves and, particularly, “event” films like How the West Was Won (1962), a failed epic better remembered for its super-widescreen Cinerama production and all-star cast than anything else. He may well have become too wedded to his original vision to adapt it to changing circumstances.

On a purely production level, Horizon: Chapter 1 is a feast for the eyes. The film pays meticulous attention to the details of everyday life on the American frontier, where life was tough for everyone, pioneers and natives alike. Even the wealthy appeared rather poor. You can feel the heat and pain suffered by those trying to carve out a living in a landscape where death in a thousand forms always lurks nearby.

Shot in Moab, southern Utah, where John Ford once filmed, the location work is stunning. Cinematographer J. Michael Muro paints the area’s intimidating sandstone buttes in rich, golden hues, accompanied by a typically solemn and heroic score by John Debney, which weaves in some traditional American songs of the era. The action scenes are excellent: bloody and bruising. The night-time attack on the Horizon settlement is a highlight, with Francis and Elizabeth almost burying themselves alive to escape the Apache. It also honestly portrays the brutal acts committed by both sides in the Native American-settler conflicts. War makes monsters of all its participants, no matter the cause.

Horizon also avoids those clichéd nods to the films of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone that have burdened many Westerns in the past 50 years. Costner, commendably, wanted to make a Western pure and simple, one unadorned by distracting cineaste flourishes. He could have gone full John Ford, with picturesque compositions of Cavalry troops riding against the sky to rousing martial trumpets, but thankfully, he’s opting for a more pared-down look, similar to the best 1950s Westerns directed by Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, and others.

As for the actors, Horizon is an ensemble piece and, as often happens, some performers stand out while others remain merely threads in the tapestry. Michael Rooker’s performance as Irish Sergeant Riordan evokes the crusty ghosts of Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen, two actors who brought so much character to Ford’s Westerns. Meanwhile, Jamie Campbell Bower may have a future ahead of him as a go-to villain.

I’ve always favoured Costner as a character actor in the vein of Warren Oates, as evidenced by his performances in films like Bull Durham (1988), A Perfect World (1993), Hatfields and McCoys (2012), and The Highwaymen (2019). He doesn’t quite convince as a heroic leading man. Sometimes compared to Gary Cooper, he lacks Cooper’s noble rural charisma, perhaps restricted by his small voice and eyes.

The screenplay, co-written by Costner and Jon Baird, is a muddled mess, jumping haphazardly between its three narratives. Costner’s desire to be inclusive and reflect contemporary values is admirable, but a television series would have offered more room to breathe and allowed for a more coherent structure. As it stands, the film is overwhelmed by its own grand ambitions.

While Horizon appears to be a model of historical accuracy, the dialogue is littered with 21st-century phrases (“I’m good” being one example). The film depicts the brutal atrocities of the Apache Wars but simultaneously softens the racist attitudes towards the Apache by putting anachronistic terms like “indigenous” in the mouths of white characters who likely wouldn’t have known the word. It would have been more honest to use the epithets they actually would have used :”Indian,” “redskin,” “savage,” and so on.

With some re-editing and restructuring, TV would have been the better arena, I kept thinking, with Horizon struggling in the hope audiences will return for the next three chapters. As a loyal Western fan going back decades, I’ll likely be watching the rest somehow—maybe on my 55-inch TV screen—but the rest of you may light out for different horizons.

USA | 2024 | 181 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Kevin Costner.
writers: Jon Baird & Kevin Costner (story by Jon Baird, Kevin Costner & Mark Kasdan).
starring: Kevin Costner, Sienna Miller, Sam Worthington, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Rooker, Danny Huston, Jena Malone, Michael Angarano, Abbey Lee, Jamie Campbell Bower, Tatanka Means, Luke Wilson, Ella Hunt, Tom Payne, Will Patton, Isabelle Fuhrman & Jeff Fahey.