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Can Costner’s Gamble Pay Off? — Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 (Film Review)

6 min read
Kevin Costner in Horizon

The Wild West. What was once one of Hollywood's most popular backdrops has since dried up and detached from its roots. Just as a tumbleweed can sprinkle some magic into the right moment of an old-school flick by entering the frame at the perfect moment of a duel, the Western genre can still provide a touch of magic among the contemporary slate of movie releases.  

An actor who seems to share a similar trajectory to the beloved genre is Kevin Costner. With hits like The Untouchables, Dances with Wolves, and The Bodyguard under his belt, there was a moment where he felt like America's sweetheart, a certified star who could do no wrong. As the flops began to pile up and the actor took roles in less and less mainstream movies, it seemed as though Costner was going the way of the Western. That is until both proved popular yet again with the mega-hit TV show Yellowstone. With the show revitalising the career of the man himself as well as the Western genre, it was only a matter of time before the star's passion project of thirty-six years – his four-part Western epic saga – would go into production. Naturally, the passion project hit a few bumps along the way.

Based on Costner's belief that viewers should be inspired by the true history of America in the Old West, the director considers the film to be a journey movie, the type of picture that takes the audience on a ride alongside the characters. Fascinated by the actions of people in a land without law, the movie is about all the people you might have encountered in the West—who they were, what they wanted, what they might do to get it. 

Coming in at three hours long, following five separate stories and with up to sixteen major characters, Costner is asking a lot from the audience with Horizon. In particular, patience. This picture is the first of three more, and with another coming to theaters before the end of the summer, that means that not every story has its own individual arc which is neatly tied up by the time the credits roll. Instead, the first chapter of this saga is almost primarily set up for the following chapters which are yet to come. In a lot of ways, this is to the film's detriment.

Not only will the length be off-putting for some audience members but, at points, the numerous stories being told and just how many characters there are can be hard to keep track of. With a lack of real payoff, this may struggle to get audiences through the door and if it does then it may struggle to keep them coming back for more. However, these assumptions mean nothing to Costner. To him, what matters is what he believes in, and what he believes in is this project.

This belief can be felt through all one-hundred and eighty minutes of this picture. The love and care that has been buried deep into the project over thirty-six years is projected onto the screen for all to see and Costner directs the picture within an inch of his life. The issues concerning the overabundance of characters and stories being told are a legitimate cause for concern. There is so much going on that audiences may struggle to keep up, but the qualities of the characters on screen certainly plays no part in this potential issue. Each is well-rounded in the writing and brought to life by the performances and our care — or lack thereof — towards these people heightens every interaction.

Thankfully, we are not only gifted great characters and references to other flicks but we are given a handful of fantastic set pieces too. If you've seen the trailer for this flick then you'll know there is no shortage of spectacle; in particular, an Apache raid on a Western town and a gunfight between Costner and Jamie Campbell Bower's characters. Fear not, both are just as thrilling and spectacular as advertised and then some. It is in these scenes that the scale of this Saga really comes into focus. Admittedly, for the most part, the film t is missing the gorgeous, epic visuals that are usually associated with the genre but Costner and co. more than make up for it with scenes like these.

Given the vast range of characters and stories going on, however, Horizon also offers us a handful of much more quiet and nuanced sequences that stand out just as much as the heart-pounding action set pieces. There are some wonderfully gentle scenes between Sam Worthington's character First Lt. Trent Gephardt and the newly widowed Frances Kittredge (Sienna Miller). The greatest of these types of moments, however, is a conversation between Sgt. Major Riordan (Michael Rooker) and Colonel Houghton (Danny Huston) in which they discuss the founding of America and what they expect for the future of the country they fight to defend. It's a powerful and poignant moment that reminds us of the passion not only behind this project but also of the founding of the settling of a land that many call the greatest country on earth.

As much as there is a lot to love about this flick, it is undoubtedly a hard picture to judge purely on its own merits. Costner has crafted a four-part series that feels like one larger film split into four, rather than four individual movies which come together to create a bigger story. And so, Horizon does not follow the traditional mode of storytelling which many are used to. Whilst some stories feel as though they come to a natural conclusion, a point that we'll pick up from in the sequel, not every individual plotline does this. It is not a flaw in the writing or the filmmaking, it is just merely unconventional.

Thus, Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 cannot be judged in the traditional sense as it is not a traditional movie. It can't be judged as a story that has a well written, well structured beginning, middle and end. Instead, it must be judged as the foundation for what is yet to come. 

Much like the early days of the United States of America, this picture is at points messy and at others inspiring. Brutal, bloody, sentimental, and patriotic, Costner lays the groundwork for what is to come just as his forefathers once did. It's not always perfect but with a collection of charming characters, fascinating stories, a well written screenplay, and with one hell of a determined director at the helm, the first part of this series lays a promising foundation for the later chapters. The building blocks are in place and just as the quality of this chapter will surely impact what is to come, it is clear that Chapter 2 could retroactively make or break this picture.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 may be unconventional but there is no denying the quality that pervades throughout its three hour runtime. This may only be the beginning and it might be a little messy but if the planned sequels are only going to keep getting bigger and better then there should be no doubt about the future of this saga. For Western fans this film is a delight that we simply must be grateful for. The fact that it has gotten made at all, after almost four decades and several bumps along the way, let alone released in theatres, is an event which simply does not happen often.

The box office performance of Horizon remains to be seen but it is certainly not missing the talent and quality that is needed for it to succeed as an accomplishment in filmmaking. Simply put, this won't be for everyone but for those who like it they'll love it and they'll stick around for the ride. Ultimately though, we won't know the results of this crazy experiment until Chapter 2 is released in August. So, to quote Kevin Costner himself, until then, see ya at the movies.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 releases in cinemas 28 June.