Kevin Costner’s Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter One is dull enough to induce napping

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
Kevin Costner's Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter One is in cinemas now.
Kevin Costner's Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter One is in cinemas now. Credit: Madman

The existence of Horizon: An America Saga — Chapter One may be ambitious and unprecedented, but the movie itself certainly isn’t.

A re-tread of existing genre tropes, Kevin Costner’s expensive western epic is as unsatisfying as its US opening weekend box office, which is to say, unimpressive at best.

The three-hour epic is dull, frustrating and sleep-inducing. And there’s a certain arrogance to it as well, or at least on the part of its filmmaker. Horizon, as its convoluted full name implies, is only the first instalment. But this is no two-parter, it’s number one in four planned movies.

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You have to buy three more tickets if you want the whole story. But there’s very little in the opener to entice you back.

The incoherent film makes you follow a patchwork of characters with barely an introduction and certainly no resolution to any of their stories — not even the semblance of an emotional arc completed, such as in Dune, where the film cuts out once Timothee Chalamet’s Paul Atreidis “comes of age”.

Chapter One introduces several story strands and characters in its frontier tale set from 1859 and expected to span over a decade. A film that reinforces the American idea of Manifest Destiny, it tracks the “brave” souls making the journey westward, and the ruthlessness of a sometimes lawless land.

Kevin Costner's Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter One is in cinemas now.
Wagons heading west. Manifest Destiny on the march. Credit: Madman

The heart of the film is a piece of land in Apache country that is being sold to people as a new settlement. The land is called Horizon and it represents a better life.

The first surveyors in Horizon are killed, a warning to those that would follow. Years later, a community has sprung up in Horizon but it’s decimated when an Apache raiding party massacres the interlopers on their land.

Very few survive but those that do include Frances (Sienna Miller) and her daughter Elizabeth (Georgia MacPhail). They move to a nearby settlement protected by a battalion of army troops led by Lieutenant Gephart (Sam Worthington).

Another survivor, a young boy, sets off on a mission of revenge against the Apache who murdered his family.

Elsewhere, Ellen (Jena Malone) attempts to kill James Sykes (Charles Halford) an abusive man, and she absconds with a child. Sykes’ sons, Junior (Jon Beavers) and Caleb (Jamie Campbell Bower) lead the hunt for Ellen and the child, who has shacked up with Marigold (Abbey Lee), a sex worker.

Marigold then goes on the run with a mysterious horse trader named Hayes (Kevin Costner, who doesn’t ride into the film until an hour in).

Kevin Costner's Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter One is in cinemas now.
Australian actor Abbey Lee in Horizon. Credit: Madman

Another subplot involves a wagon train heading west, probably to Horizon, led by its captain Matthew Van Weyden (Luke Wilson). The travelling party includes a husband and wife (Tom Payne and Ella Hunt) who are not used to the rough ways of the road.

Then there are the Native American characters, including a young warrior named Piosenay (Owen Crow Shoe) who defied his father in leading the raid against Horizon. He wants to stop “the white eyes” from taking their land.

You could criticise Costner for being shallow on the Native American perspective except he’s fleeting on every character and subplot.

Horizon is a movie that spends too little time with anyone. Even after three hours, you have no grasp on any particular character or their fate because there are too many people to keep track of.

Miller and Lee have perhaps the most to do, but even then, they have what feels like 15 minutes of screen time in a three-hour movie. And it’s nothing more than a cursory introduction.

Nothing that we’ve seen so far suggests depth or something new and different to say about the great myths surrounding the “founding” of the American West. There are brutal killings and naïve settlers. Shock horror. We’ve seen it all before.

Conversely, for a film that doesn’t spend enough time on anyone to be invested in them, it also, infuriatingly, wastes time on scenes that never seem to end. To say Costner indulges in moments is an understatement. Most scenes go for too long.

Kevin Costner's Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter One is in cinemas now.
This man is wearing a black hat. Can you guess if he’s a good guy or a bad? Credit: Madman

A seven-minute exchange should have been cut to four. There’s nothing wrong with staying with a scene, luxuriating in it, if it serves a character or story purpose. In Horizon, everything is dragged out for the sake of pumping up the screen time while showing you not much of anything.

Whether Costner will ever get to fulfil his vision is uncertain. He has filmed parts one and two with the second part due for release in late August, but has no financing for numbers three and four.

Considering he invested between $US38 million and $US50 million of his own money into the gambit, it’ll be even harder to convince anyone to buy into it after the lacklustre performance commercially — so far — and critically, there’s no compelling argument to keep going.

The filmmaker has already flagged that the movie would be profitable long-term due to its licensing for home entertainment markets, and there is a conversation about whether Horizon, at its core, is a series of movies or a TV show.

Kevin Costner's Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter One is in cinemas now.
Sienna Miller in Horizon. Credit: Madman

It’s neither. Even in a cinema culture dominated by franchises with multiple movies, at least most of them have relatively contained stories with a classic three-act structure. Horizon’s first chapter is not interested in any such constraints.

It’s also not a TV show because if you got to the end of the third episode of an hour-long drama and you still hadn’t connected with any of the characters nor had a sense of the point of all this, you would switch off.

To its credit, the performances, the little of them you see, are great. The cinematography by J. Michael Muro is beautiful, and when you look out on those vistas, you understand why so many people wanted to make those lands their home.

But vignettes and pretty pictures don’t justify a three-hour epic. It certainly doesn’t justify four of them.

Rating: 2/5

Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter One is in cinemas now


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