Kevin Costner’s ‘Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1’ Blazes Through Stunning Vistas and Crammed Plotting

It is exciting and daunting when a director is truly doing their own thing. Working without any seeming constraints can mean glory or folly. Kevin Costner’s “Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1” has enough of both. Properly assessing the actor-director’s big passion project is somewhat tricky right now, since this is the first entry in a four-movie opus. “Chapter 2” is scheduled for release on Aug. 16. Costner had recently rocketed back into pop culture prominence thanks to the hit TV series “Yellowstone.” He seems to have taken many lessons from that format and applied them to the structure of “Horizon.” This first chapter feels like the first 3-hour pilot to be screened at multiplexes. It is a collection of many Western tropes, a few progressive ideas, and lots of world-building.

The action kicks off at the dawn of the Civil War. In the San Pedro Valley, white settlers are brutally raided by Apache warriors led by Pionsenay (Owen Crow Shoe). After the smoke and carnage clears, a survivor named Frances (Sienna Miller) and her daughter, Lizzie (Georgia MacPhail), leave with Union troops led by Lt. Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington). Over in the grandiose Wyoming Territory, horse trader Hayes Ellison (Costner) rides into town where he meets a likably assertive sex worker, Marigold (Abbey Lee). But Marigold’s sister, Ellen (Jena Malone), is being hunted down by ruthless former associates. Hayes finds himself having to protect Ellen and Marigold’s baby. And finally, in Montana we meet a caravan of settlers led by Matthew Van Weyden (Luke Wilson), a balanced leader trying to make sure everyone keeps the pace and contributes equally to the work demands.

Needless to say, Costner is trying to balance a huge cast and interweaving storylines. “In 1988 I conceived it as one movie. Then it became four more,” Costner recently told us. “It became a metaphor for the chaos that started this country. It starts with a stake being put in the ground and the first towns begin.” He clearly has a devotion to this genre and like Clint Eastwood, is most associated with it. His best work as a director, the Oscar-winning “Dances with Wolves” and the grand “Open Range,” are Westerns with a classic and modern feel. Even his infamous 1997 flop, “The Postman,” is essentially a sci-fi Western. “Horizon” is a combination of all those contradictory elements that have defined Costner’s directorial work. Visually, it’s fit for a massive theater canvas. A student of the classics, Costner and cinematographer J. Michael Muro are chasing after Sergio Leone and John Ford with setting the characters in front of stunning vistas and wide open spaces. Valleys and forests become characters onto themselves. The music by John Debney isn’t even pretending to cater to new sensibilities, shamelessly giving everything a symphonic sweep similar to what Michael Kamen did for “Open Range.” Everything from printing presses to military outposts, to probably actors’ undergarments, feels obsessively detailed. 

Gargantuan visions have notoriously been hard for directors to fully control. Think of Michael Cimino’s Western, “Heaven’s Gate,” though it’s too early to say how Costner’s vision will pan out. A lot of “Chapter 1” feels like a pure set-up. A massive amount of time is spent introducing everyone’s singular stories. Expect no payoffs. Because this is all part of the grand design, Costner indulges in really taking his time with scenes such as the Apache raid, which has startling moments before we wonder how much longer it can go on. There is genuine suspense involving underground tunnels, big fires and shootouts mixed for maximum surround sound punch. Sensing the need to fill in space, we get scenes that are just filler, like Frances and Lizzie shrieking at two scorpions in their tent. Costner may be on the posters, but even he doesn’t appear for at least the first hour. Costner’s Hayes has two particularly long monologue scenes where he is followed by Marigold through town, later by one of the thugs chasing after Ellen’s child. He’s letting the supporting cast shine, since Costner is playing the Western archetype of the quiet frontier man who has few words but a mean aim.

Because “Chapter 1” is establishing the world in the same way a TV pilot spends an hour or more introducing a series, there is not too much action going on. Every storyline is essentially gearing us up for later payoffs. Frances and Lt. Trent show the beginnings of one of those drawn out romances where they go courtin’ in that classic Western style, shyly exchanging glances under a tree. The material might then detour to someone like Col. Albert Houghton (Danny Huston easily phoning it in), staring out a window to explain how colonizing the west is essential whether the Indigenous like it or not. Many micro stories are crammed into the bigger tales. The Montana wagon trail has a funny bit involving two British dandies who frustrate Van Weyden with their allergy to hard labor. There are also two Eastern European members of the trail who will clearly start trouble later. We don’t learn anything about Costner’s character, because his section is this film’s more traditional thriller angle. He’s with the woman on the run, evading a ruthless gang with members like Elias (Scott Haze), who looks plucked out of “Yellowstone” and speaks with a rumbling baritone.

Costner’s directorial debut, “Dances With Wolves,” made an impact in 1990 for its fairer portrayal of Native Americans when compared to Hollywood’s long, racist history. So it’s surprising how the Apaches get much less exposition or screen time in “Chapter 1.” It could simply be the result of a script bulging at the seams. The characters are both Western tropes but not without empathy. Pionsenay is the hard-headed warrior trying to warn his people that nothing will stop the white settlers unless they fight back. Other members of the community worry about the ensuing bloodshed, but was it ever stoppable? There’s also another potential love story involving an Apache woman, Liluye (Wasé Chief), who is left alone with a baby and comes under the care of Pionsenay. She’s given some good, commanding material that hopefully expands further in the next chapters. In general, one of the admirable qualities of “Horizon,” so far, is the prominence of the women characters. “The West was not Disneyland, it was real,” Costner shared. “And, I can’t tell the story of the West without the First People’s story, without the Indigenous experience.”

“Chapter 1” is overstuffed and long, but not without passion. Costner is determined to go for broke. A curious flaw in this first entry is the ending, where he spends a few minutes splicing together clips of moments from the next two movies where the material apparently lets it rip. We see glimpses of wagon chases, escapes and other twists that shouldn’t be spoiled. Once again, like the typical streaming series, it is an attempt at enticing us to keep tuning in. One suspects many audiences will discover this whole saga in the streaming format anyway. Unlike at home, in this post-intermission time, you can’t take a break from “Chapter 1” at the movie theater. On its own, this is a visually stunning half-serving that can’t fully satisfy because of its very structure. We shall see what the entire canvas will look like when it’s complete. As Costner himself recently shared, “when I do a story I don’t wanna stop until it’s finished. This is a journey. It’s not a plot movie. The only way I’ll assess if it’s successful is when it’s complete.”

Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1” releases June 28 in theaters nationwide.