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‘Horizon: An America Saga – Chapter One’: Costner’s Large-Scale, Slow Western is Pure Cinema

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Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter One is merely one part of a major gamble. A true passion project for actor, writer, and director Kevin Costner, the idea for a sprawling Civil War-set Western has been kicking around in Costner‘s head at least since the late ’80s. Some nearly 40 years later, the scope of the project has increased. Consisting of a planned four films, with the first film now out and the second coming out on August 16, 2024, Costner left his lucrative television role on Paramount’s Yellowstone and self-financed the would-be epic.

Does Costner‘s giant vanity project come together? Yes, with some reservations. Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter One is a decidedly uncool, or perhaps old-fashioned, take on the Western genre. What’s different is the massive scale on which Costner chooses to communicate it. Packed with an ensemble of game performers, a series of interweaving narrative threads, larger-than-life images, and a gutsy ambition, the set-up nature of Chapter One could be exhausting for some. For the faithful, Kevin Costner‘s introduction to his magnum opus is pure cinema, warts and all.

Horizon: An America Saga – Chapter One tells (part) of many great stories

Trying to come up with a summary for Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter One is almost as difficult as getting the film made. Here are the basics: the year is 1859. In the San Pedro Valley, fledgling town Horizon has become a spot of interest for settlers. When a group of indigenous Apaches in the area led by Pionsenay (Owen Crow Shoe) lay waste to the settlers, the story diverges into a series of different sub-stories. One centers around Pionsenay, who comes into conflict with chief Taklishim over his actions. Another follows a band of mercenaries led by survivor Elias Janney (Scott Haze) to take revenge, while another survivor, Frances Kittridge (Sienna Miller) falls in love with Union Army first lieutenant Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington).

Owen Crow Shoe as Pionsenay in Horizon: An American Saga
Pionsenay (Owen Crow Shoe) in Horizon: An American Saga. (Warner Bros)

Out in Montana territory, Lucy (Jena Malone) has escaped a wicked man with her son in tow, settling down to live with a kindly businessman (Michael Angarano) in the home of sex worker Maribel (Abbey Lee) under the name Ellen. Her past soon catches up to her. The only hope might be a traveling rustler (Kevin Costner).

The pace of Chapter One might be enough to turn most of the audience off the Horizon project. To be fair, the film crawls on, and is constantly cutting between storylines and interesting new characters. This summary didn’t even touch characters played by Michael RookerDanny Huston, or Luke Wilson. Nevertheless, the stories are so fascinating on their own that it’s hard not to instinctively lean forward and get swept up in it all.

If you’re looking for subversion, Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter One is not it. This is the Western genre in its most clear form. The earnest straightforwardness of the screenplay by Costner and Jon Baird can be mistaken for cringe-worthy “back in my day” sentiment.

What’s apparent, though, is that Costner truly loves classic Westerns and American history. Each storyline is given extreme care in developing vivid characters, acted just as written and blocked expertly by Costner. We get to know these people so intimately that once a big action beat, betrayal, or surprise happens, it carries much more weight. A late-film gun duel between Costner‘s character and Jamie Campbell Bowers hits a cinematic high comparable to the best of VFX-laden blockbusters.

Kevin Costners hobbles his own film by design

There’s no talking around it, Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter One is incomplete by design. None of the stories have satisfying climaxes. There’s no grand note to end this chapter off with other than a sizzle reel for Chapter Two. It’s easy to see this as a failing on Kevin Costner‘s part, and in a way it is. In a market increasingly hostile to the multi-film storytelling of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with exceptions like the overwhelming success of the Dune films, it feels fool-hardy to make a movie this way. Moreover, will audiences be engaged enough to keep on with the saga?

Probably not. But an easy cheat code to enjoying the film is to see Horizon as a television series with the benefits of massive movie production. Or, perhaps, something like a novel, only Horizon forces you to stop reading. Instead of feeling cheated, take stock of how much you care about these characters. For me, I’m actively itching to see where the story goes next. You’ve got to actively trust the process, and what’s here is good enough to merit coming back to see how and when these various storylines collide.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter One brings the craft

One thing’s for certain: Kevin Costner knows how to direct a movie. The astonishing tableau of the American West as shot by Jimmy Muro feels like seeing one of your grandpa’s favorite Westerns through the lens of modern technology. The digital cinematography dulls the classic “Western look”, but the shot construction is so well considered that it hardly matters. A scene of water reflecting Costner brandishing his pistol, Lucy riding out into the cold bathed in shadow, and an endless array of wagons traveling the Santa Fe Trail steals the breath away whether you like it or not. What Costner is doing here is forging an American mythology, bolstered by a score by John Debney that might come off as overly sentimental despite perfectly underlining what Horizon is trying to do.

If you watch Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter One and find it to be incomplete, hokey, or interminable, you’d be correct. That’s the intention. Kevin Costner throws all caution to the wind, crafting the first of four parts of his love letter to Westerns and an era of American History. Full of soon-to-interconnect, detailed stories, a reverent eye, and an ambition on the level of James Cameron, I couldn’t help but fall for its spell. Follow the horizon, and you might be surprised with what you see.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter One is now playing in theaters. Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus if you have seen or plan to see this film in theaters!

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James Preston Poole

James Preston Poole is a Houston-based writer who specializes in genre film, while also screenwriting and working on film sets whenever he can. He believes that as long as there’s someone out there to champion a movie, then there’s no such thing as “objectively bad.” James holds a Bachelor of Science in Radio-Television-Film from the University of Texas and owes everything to his friends, family, significant other Catherine, and their three-legged cat Trinity.

James Preston Poole has 24 posts and counting. See all posts by James Preston Poole