Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1 (United States, 2024)

June 29, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1 Poster

Kevin Costner knows Westerns. He also loves them. Thus far, the one-time matinee idol has directed four films; three of them have been Westerns. (The fourth, The Postman, was a Razzie-honored post-apocalyptic misfire.) After his directorial debut, the Oscar-honored Dances with Wolves, he made the less heralded (but still compulsively watchable) Open Range. Now, after taking a starring role in the beloved TV series Yellowstone, he returns to the big screen with his most ambitious project to-date: the complex, sprawling Horizon, a multi-episode cinematic epic whose first part hints at potential greatness if not quite reaching that pinnacle on its own.

Costner views Horizon as a four-chapter saga covering a 12-year period in the West set during and just after the Civil War. His goal has been to make the films quickly and get them into theaters with a minimum of post-production fuss. Chapters 1 and 2 are completed and have release dates set within 8 weeks of one another (June 28, 2024 and August 16, 2024). Chapter 3, still in production at the time of Chapter 1’s opening, is tentatively slated for an early-to-mid 2025 bow. Plans for Chapter 4 remain somewhat ambiguous, although Costner believes he has sufficient funding to get it into theaters before the end of 2025.

Chapter 1, which is weighted down by too much narrative heavy lifting and not enough payoff, opens with a thrilling and terrifying night raid by Apache warriors on a homesteaders’ settlement. When a group of soldiers arrives the next day, they find devastation and death. Two females survivors – Frances Kittredge (Sienna Miller) and her daughter, Elizabeth (Georgia MacPhail) – are taken under the protection of Lieutenant Gephardt (Sam Worthington), who develops a mutual attraction with Frances.

Elsewhere, lone rider Hayes Ellison (Costner) arrives at a mining settlement where he’s primarily interested in a hot meal and a place to sleep. His interest is piqued by a local prostitute, Marigold (Abbey Lee), who offers a different use for the bed. But the timing is unfortunate, at least for Hayes. The two-year old boy currently in Marigold’s care is wanted by a roving band of outlaws. When Hayes defends himself in a shootout, he becomes a wanted man and is forced to go on the run with Marigold and the boy in tow.

The final major story introduced in Chapter 1 follows a large caravan on its way to the settlement of Horizon. Led by Matthew Van Weyden (Luke Wilson) and his right-hand man, Owen (Will Patton), the group is not one big happy family. Many of the lower-class settlers take offense at the high-handed elitist attitudes of Hugh Proctor (Tom Payne) and his paramour, Juliette (Ella Hunt). Friction threatens to erupt into conflict even as the settlers come under the watchful gaze of two native scouts who observe them from a respectful distance.

Part of the frustration with Horizon Chapter 1 is that, just as it’s starting to ramp up, it ends. To his credit, Costner does his best to provide small resolutions in the final few moments but it’s clear this is just the beginning. Overall, the setup isn’t uninteresting and there’s a sense that the slow-burn approach could reap future benefits, but Horizon Chapter 1 never feels fully formed. The parallel storylines never intersect. As a result, it’s tough to grade this film as a stand-alone since it’s intended to be a part of something larger.

As with Dances with Wolves, Costner opts for an immersive approach. The cinematography by J. Michael Muro contains moments of breathtaking beauty alongside images of the Old West that might represent a grainy black-and-white photograph brought to life. John Debney’s score is one of the best he has written in a while. Filmed on location in Utah, Horizon uses a combination of the area’s natural beauty and effective set design/costumes/makeup to take the viewer back some 160 years.

Costner’s “revisionist” approach to the Western, which was deemed unique at the time of Dances with Wolves, is in evidence. This is no mere “Cowboys vs. Indians” story. The filmmaker is careful not to demonize any party, providing background for even some of the seemingly most senseless acts of barbarism (committed by settlers and Indigenous people).

I applaud what Costner has given us with Horizon. This contains many of the things on my movie wish-list with its focus on an original story, diverse characters, and a classic cinematic approach. Problems aside, Costner has me hooked and I’ll be among the first in line to see Chapter 2 when it opens in August. This is a project that I would love to succeed and, at least based on what I have seen in Chapter 1, it’s off to a promising start.

Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1 (United States, 2024)

Director: Kevin Costner
Screenplay: Jon Baird & Kevin Costner
Cinematography: J. Michael Muro
Music: John Debney
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 3:01
U.S. Release Date: 2024-06-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Western
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1