Kevin Costner’s Earnest Western Returns in Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1

Movies Reviews Kevin Costner
Kevin Costner’s Earnest Western Returns in Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1

As with Wes Anderson’s playfully oversaturated Asteroid City, Kevin Costner’s Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 has made a name for itself pre-release. Out of context on the internet, its frames seem garish, overcooked, even tasteless. The flushed color for both films is alarming when experienced as furling frames of hot-washed landscapes in trailers that find us between our friends’ posts mid-doomscroll. But the siloed and deliberated delivery of a film has long been a core tenet of cinema (Christopher Nolan invoked on purpose, our most popular martyr for the cause), a portal that ushers us into the director’s world. 

Cinematic frames, cinematic sound, cinematic language—they need cinematic staging AKA the theater (or at least a theatrical home viewing) to be experienced. Golden light splaying across a gaping morning gorge just doesn’t hit on YouTube, nor do the falling flakes of snow-blue Montana mountains in a flurry, nor the brushed grasses of vast prairies bent by perennial wind. But in the theater, Costner’s mammoth vision of frontier America can be breathtaking.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1’s plot is anything but straightforward, the film made up of three (arguably four) stories trying to shoulder and set up the narrative weight of a four-part, 12-hour cinematic event well-enough with one movie in order to warrant the rest. It’s spread a bit thin, but not distractingly so if you anticipate the stories as parts of a whole. Through episodic logic, Costner and co-screenwriter Jon Baird balance the film quite well.

It’s 1859 and the stories are split into three locations: the San Pedro River Valley (home to the new settlement of Horizon), the Montana-Wyoming mountain range territory, and Western Kansas on the Santa Fe Trail. In the first, new settlers struggle to fend off Native Americans protecting their land. In the third, we follow a wagon train of new Americans trekking across the country, Costner’s penchant for Western realism making entertainment out of everyday frustrations of the 19th century, like when drinking water is used as bath water and vice versa. 

The fourth story concerns the Native Americans occupying the lands near the new settlement, but it isn’t given the time of day. Hopefully future installments will level that out. Costner leads the second story as a bad boy gunman-grifter who can’t shake the ladies, wants help from no one, and goes by “Hayes,” like Costner’s son, who, in a roundabout way, was named after this character. In other words, Costner has been trying to get Horizon made since long before his son was born.

A Megalopolis-sized endeavor for the multi-hyphenate—the only kind he cares to take on—getting the first three parts made has cost Costner $98 million out-of-pocket so far, which has required him to relinquish a lot of his assets. “I don’t need four homes. I’ll risk those homes to make my movies. I want to leave them to my children, but my children will have to live their own lives,” Costner said plainly at the Cannes press conference the morning after the premiere. 

Homeric undertakings such as these are the defining career trend for Costner, whose ambition as a director is the only thing that outperforms his charm as an actor. The epic, Oscar-sweeping Dances with Wolves infamously took Best Picture over Goodfellas, setting the filmmaker up for directorial success. But the back-to-back bombs (also of Homeric proportions) that were Waterworld (which Costner more or less directed—he had the power to fire the director, and he did) and The Postman left Costner in the dust. His third, Open Range, marked a strong yet much quieter effort before he left directing behind entirely…or so it seemed. With Horizon, he aims to more than double his directorial filmography and add his first four screenwriting credits to his tool belt.

As the first film he’s directed in 21 years, Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 runs right down the middle of Costner’s career obsessions, both in story makeup and the characters he writes for himself. Dances with Wolves, The Postman and Open Range all reside in the American West sans modern civilization with nomadic men (by choice), roaming sweeping landscapes with even more sweeping orchestral scores, combining Western realism with storybook idealism. His first two films also sat at three hours, just like Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 (and JFK and Wyatt Earp…the man loves an epic scope). 

On the less appealing side—but genuinely funny enough to negate that—of Costner’s obsessions is his swooning infatuation with himself, which is (always) on full display. He’s made sure he ends up opposite the hottest people in the world, and he’s written them to drool over him the second he walks into town. The cherry on top is how calloused Hayes is written to be to the most beautiful women in town. “Oh, Christ,” he keeps proclaiming when the ladies openly pine for his rugged, well-meaning Western way and, presumably, good dick and protection.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 is a fawning tribute to the good boys of the American West, of which there are many here; Sam Worthington, Michael Rooker and Luke Wilson’s characters all brandish their “soul of honor” (a phrase that rightly got giggles from the crowd) as Frances Kittredge (Sienna Miller) calls it. Danny Huston is great in a brief officer role, channeling his father’s gruff Western demeanor and wise-talking grovel. Even bad boy Costner can’t help but listen to his conscience, his dark past only peaking out in oral legends and a chronic resting bitch face, a visage he somehow wears softly, a testament to his charm. On the other side, to accentuate the goodness, the villains are vile; Jamie Campbell Bower puts on a display of evil odious enough to actually taste bad. 

The most reliable thing going into any Costner movie is and always has been his true-blue earnestness, the most bankable quality of a star that made a name on tractor-beaming audiences in the ‘80s and ‘90s with sheer, indisputable sincerity. He’s ridden the waves of flops that have aged in the public’s favor over the years largely due to their fetching Costner charm, one that worms its way into your good graces by taking itself so seriously that you ultimately don’t have to. As with so many Costner vehicles in the past, it’s hard to imagine someone losing interest in Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 once they’ve gained it, the frenetic pace of story plus the prestige melodrama mood of the early ‘90s that Costner hasn’t lost touch with at all still combining with magnetizing effect. We largely lost taste for it at the time, but in 2024, it feels like a relic of an aesthetic past—vintage cinematic toning.

As with any strong Western, Horizon’s boundless landscapes are used as tools of an existential, triggering reflection on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin, or where to let your mind roam off to. It reflects loneliness and progress, the most essential elements of survival and the most frivolous, where we’ve come from and where we’ll likely end up, as The Postman would have it. It keeps the mind moving even when things are still.

Yet, Costner ditches his staple prestige style when it comes to violence, trading Oscar-bait beats of emotion for graphic, more contemporary instances of starkly seen violence, women and children not spared by the camera’s crosshairs. It’s a riveting turn for the actor-as-filmmaker, and one he seems to have a good grip on. It’s certainly something to look forward to in the coming installments.

But as for “Kevin Costner’s break back into cinema,” as Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 has made itself out to be, the influence of modern TV—specifically Yellowstone—makes Horizon look like TV’s baby brother, one trying to get out of its shadow and carve its own path. The most glaring evidence is its episodic narrative, no doubt a selling point for Costner in the fundraising phase. Just imagine how well this translates to streaming. In essence, they could play it for both. It has the scope, the craftsmanship, the movie-grade performances, the look, and the distribution of cinema. But it has the delivery potential (three one-hour sections perfect for a streaming format) and built-in approachability of TV. 

The great news for anyone who loves Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 is that Chapter 2 is right around the corner, arriving in theaters in August, only six weeks after the release of the first. And the best news is that Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 are in the batter’s box, the former already underway and the latter waiting for its predecessors to knock the ball out the park so it can step up to the production plate.

Director: Kevin Costner
Writer: Jon Baird, Kevin Costner
Starring: Kevin Costner, Sienna Miller, Sam Worthington, Giovanni Ribisi, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Michael Rooker, Danny Huston, Luke Wilson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Jeff Fahey, Will Patton, Tatanka Means, Owen Crow Shoe, Ella Hunt, Jamie Campbell Bower, Thomas Haden Church
Release Date: May 19, 2024

Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist and arts enthusiast by way of Austin, TX. He got his master’s studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him on Twitter @lou_kicks.

1 Comment
Most Popular
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin