Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1

The ‘Western’ – as a genre – has twice had its heyday: during the ‘Golden era’ of the 40s and 60s, when sprawling vistas were populated with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor or John Wayne (Giant or The Searchers anyone?); and separately during the 1970s, where the Italian-American hybrid of the ‘spaghetti Western’ essentially built the career of Clint Eastwood (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly for example). These films, full of American idealism and spirit, are an exploration of the desire to explore and expand, to stake a claim, and to fight to the last stand for the love of a home or a woman. The epitome of heroism – good versus evil, saving the damsel – were made uniquely their own thing in Westerns with ‘white hats’ in shootouts with ‘black hats’ and saloon mistresses with spunk and heart. All of this is present in Costner’s Horizon – An American Saga: Chapter 1, and then some – so much so that the resulting film is stuffed to the point of bursting, and it is not a good thing.

Horizon opens with a scenic settler encampment in Arizona territory, every one of its residents in the throes of enjoying a dance hall celebration that is to be short-lived, as the Apache tribe living in the high mountains has come to eliminate the trespassers on their hunting grounds. The resulting sequence is barbaric and tragic in equal measure, with men, women, and young children murdered and scalped on screen. As the sequence plays out, ultimately introducing us to Francis Kitteridge (Sienna Miller) and her daughter Diamond as the surviving members of their household…we cut across to the story of Lucy (Jenna Malone), an angry woman in the frigid Montana wilderness, who unloads several shotgun shells into the sleeping body of her ‘man’ before grabbing her infant son and fleeing…then we cut back to the southwest to meet First Lieutenant Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington) and Sergeant Major Riordan (Michael Rooker) of the US Army as they survey the Apache attack on the settlement…and all of this in the first hour in long stretches even before Kevin Costner even makes his first appearance as rancher with a past named Hayes Ellison, who becomes entangled in helping save Lucy’s sister Marigold (Abby Lee), who is now caring for Lucy’s son. And then there is something with Luke Wilson playing the leader of a wagon train heading out on the Santa Fe Trail…

Chapter 1 introduces many characters – arguably too many characters – to tell the story of how the west was ‘won’ over the course of a decade, detailing the reformation and recovery of the Union after the Civil War as political, social, and territorial friction fuels exploration of the American West. The task at hand for Costner (apart from not losing $130 million of his own money in the effort) is to not only make a compelling and beautiful film about this uniquely American saga, but to explore the historical period in a way that resonates today under a modern sensibility. In giving his film so many characters and so many stories, the three hour marathon feels simultaneously too long and too short. Characters get fleeting moments here and there before the next transition several states over to introduce even more characters. The presented stories move forward a very small amount, leaving each one almost like some grand scale vignette adjacent another grand scale vignette. Emotional exchanges feel rushed and unearned, things and people moving in and out of frame too quickly to even retain their names.

The first in Costner’s planned four-part Western saga is a massive prologue that fails as a standalone film, but might be the start of a tremendous culmination

It all plays like some cinematic equivalent of a moving steam train: stories all rolling the same direction at the same time, one after the other like attached coaches and cars, but the journey being largely the only thing that makes them have any sort of connection. Sadly, each story introduced – what with the varying characters played by a terrifically talented cast all backed with such incredible scenery and cinematography – could be a Western epic on their own. Seeing the deeply emotional journey of Sienna Miller’s Francis living hard frontier life while dealing with grief and trying to steer her daughter into womanhood would be compelling; Malone’s Lucy – her performance full of wild, furious grit – with its plot would be a gripping Western; even Luke Wilson’s wagon train gives us several new faces and players to be guided into the unknown that would offer true danger and exploration. But with so many characters in this film, ultimately everyone is left entirely stunted, and with the cast involved, it feels like a waste.

Furthermore, the film’s stories need to be grand in scale – which they do hint at being at times – in order to make the characters standout against not only the historical period, but the tropes of the genre itself…and perhaps it is due to the sheer volume of characters, or the fact that Costner is planning to do four of these films altogether, but the characters largely hit genre stereotypes only, and the stories do so much of what we have already seen before in Westerns from the ‘golden’ age of Hollywood. Adding insult to injury is that Costner includes elements of history – Chinese immigrants working on the railroad expansion out west, for example – in fleeting moments while keeping them simply background characters. Even a long scene of Apache men arguing – in Apache – over their war tactics against the settlers from the beginning of the film, meant to show both sides of the history being played out, comes across as half-forced and half-developed, as if Costner is aware of the responsibility to showcase the indigenous trauma and viewpoint in contrast to the exploration of the West, but failed to capture it…once again because there is simply too much, and a resulting too little, in this massive film…

…which might be the biggest issue of the film overall. The film is perhaps the most grandiose cinematic equivalent of ‘setting the table’ in recent memory; again, knowing that Costner is planning for four total films, Chapter 1 feels like an extremely protracted prologue of sorts. It is entirely possible that in hindsight of Chapters 2-4, Chapter 1 may be the movie that introduced characters to audiences that they can look back on with fondness and recall their stories from this massive saga. But as a film, standing alone on its own – with a near three minute sizzle reel of Chapter 2 as a promise of what is in store to close – the film has too many characters and too many stories moving too slowly to be a new masterpiece, or the genre hallmark that Costner is capable of making.

Final Thought

Cinematic table setting this ornate - even with teases of the menu to come - can be tantalizing. But when the wait for dinner might be several months, is the table setting - or the meal - worthwhile? Costner usually is, so time will tell


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