Review: Kevin Costner’s HORIZON: AN AMERICAN SAGA – CHAPTER 1 Is A Bold & Epic Western

4 out of 5 stars

Kevin Costner’s legacy will always be tied to the western. From his breakout big screen success in Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado, through to Dances With Wolves, Wyatt Earp, Open Range and television’s Hatfields and McCoys and Yellowstone, he has long been associated with the genre. Even his 1997 post-apocalyptic directorial effort, The Postman, is essentially a western in all but name. 

Costner has been one of the few filmmakers to keep the western alive, ensuring that the most American of art forms retains its most sacred genre, continuing the tradition of masters such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah, George Stevens and more. He’s doing it once again with Horizon: An American Saga – a four chapter cinematic event that covers 12 years in American history which sees Kevin Costner not only star, co-write (along with Jon Baird), produce and direct – but also finance to the tune of more than $38 million. These movies don’t just seem to be a job for Costner – they’re a way of life. He’s gone all-in and crafted something bold, unique and potentially divisive. By doing so, has delivered a film which is 100% one filmmaker’s singular vision. And what a vision. It’s like a reworking of How The West Was Won, but without having to adhere to rules of mainstream Hollywood storytelling. 

For a movie that is steeped in tradition Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 refuses to play by the rules of cinema. Forget the three, or even four act structure, Costner takes his multi-strand narrative and refuses to give the audience the easy answers. There might be beginnings, middles and endings to each tale, but they’re left loosely dangling for soon to be released Chapter 2. This is likely to alienate the average moviegoer, but there’s something rebellious and even avant-garde about Costner’s decision here. It’s like when Bob Dylan decided to ditch the acoustic sound for electric in 1965. Don’t be like those people who booed at the Newport Folk Festival, open your mind and go where Costner is taking you. And all roads lead to Horizon.

In the film, Horizon is a so-called town in the San Pedro Valley which is advertised on loose pamphlets as an idyllic paradise – the location for a new life. However, in reality it’s just a plot of land located on Apache hunting ground. Costner’s film ultimately follows those attempting to settle there and those dreaming of settling there. The thing is – dreams and reality rarely align. 

We see Sienna Miller’s Frances widowed in a fierce Apache attack on the burgeoning town, slowly attempt to rebuild her life alongside practical Cavalry lieutenant Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington). In Wyoming Abby Lee’s Marigold is on the run from a sadistic family. She’s aided by Costner’s Hayes Ellison, a stoic horse trader with a mysterious past. Meanwhile on the Santa Fe Trail, a wagon train led by Luke Wilson’s Matthew Van Weyden heads towards Horizon with a ragtag group of settlers.  Weaving in and out of these tales is a selection of Apaches, bounty hunters and assorted other characters who show the good and bad that humanity holds. 

There’s a lot going on in Horizon, with a collection of characters as big as the territory covered in the film. But Costner wants to show what life was like for these people: he doesn’t want to tell any story about how the west was won – he wants to tell the definitive story. An an idea that’s probably been percolating in his mind since the late 1980s, you can tell that Costner needs to include the stories that he’s read in history books and the iconic moments that inspired him in movies. And he’s using archetypes, themes and tropes to craft them into one epic story: the wagon train on the lonesome trail; the gunfighter looking for redemption; the trackers in search of the Native American war party. They’re all here, dusted off and presented in their own individual vignettes. Other filmmakers would have attempted to draw them all together, but by the end of Chapter 1, these tales are still running parallel. That will be infuriating for some – but why do they have to converge? The simple answer is: they don’t. Convention has taught us that they should, but then Costner has never been one for following convention. That’s why we haven’t had three sequels to The Bodyguard or umpteen Robin Hood adventures. 

Horizon may move from story to story, but each one is filled with great moments. One early standout scene sees a homestead getting under attacked by Apache raiders – it’s tense and expertly staged. Another moment shows a young boy getting the opportunity to seek misplaced retribution on an innocent Native American trader in a general goods store. There’s even a business deal gone wrong in an isolated cabin that’s as darkly comedic as it is brutal. These are just a few of the excellent scenes, deftly directed and well performed. 

The sprawling cast of Horizon all do great work. Costner himself doesn’t show up until almost an hour in, but the likes of  Luke Wilson, Tatanka Means, Sienna Miller, Jena Malone, Wase Winyan Chief, Jamie Campbell Bower, Jena Malone, Sam Worthington, Isabelle Fuhrman, Ella Hunt, Michael Rooker, Abbey Lee, Will Patton and others more than hold their own. It’s a true ensemble – where, like in the wagon train – everyone pulls their own weight. 

A good western needs strong visuals and cinematographer J. Michael Muro more than delivers on that front. Having previously shot Costner’s Open Range, he knows how to make a landscape work, and his camera makes the multiple terrains look distinct and beautiful. John Debney’s score is glorious and offers up rousing galloping motifs alongside the strong action cues, as well as music that shows the romanticism of the vast landscape. It’s the power of cinema. 

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 will deliver what you bring to it as a viewer. If you’re looking for a simple goodies versus baddies shoot ‘em up then you’ll be sorely disappointed. However,  if you’re looking for epic filmmaking which attempts to push the boundaries of a century old genre, then you’ll be very much rewarded. This is a first chapter after-all, and Costner is setting up the larger story in advance of Chapter 2 – and if the montage at the end of the film is anything to go by, then that instalment will be bigger and even bolder than this one. 

Where Horizon: An American Saga goes from there is anyone’s guess, but if one thing’s for sure – it’s that Kevin Costner won’t be taking the easy route to get there.