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'Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1' review: Kevin Costner wants to settle

Kevin Costner wearing a cowboy hat looking out a window
SF Studios

From yee to the haw we go. Passion projects and massive bets from older filmmakers are certainly making a comeback and one of those contributing to the trend is Kevin Costner who directs, co-writes and co-stars in Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1, a good ol' western epic tackling a sprawling tale of lives interwoven in the United States from 1859 and onwards during the Civil War. Costner plays an alleged horse trader named Hayes Ellison who meets and ends up running away with sex worker Marigold (Abbey Lee) after killing troublemaker Caleb Sykes (Jamie Campbell Bower) in a shootout and before his brother Junior (Jon Beavers) shows up to seek revenge. Meanwhile, a settler town called Horizon is being built in Apache territory in modern day Arizona where the settlers clash with the Apache people, often violently and fatally.

Also starring in the film are Sienna Miller as Frances Kittredge, a mom who survives one of those deadly clashes with her daughter Elizabeth (Georgia MacPhail), Sam Worthington as army lieutenant Trent Gephart who's sympathetic towards indigenous people, Michael Rooker as not-so-sympathetic army major Thomas Riordan, Danny Huston as colonel Albert Houghton, Jena Malone as Marigold's friend ''Ellen'', Luke Wilson as settler guide Matthew Van Weyden, as well as Tatanka Means as Taklishim and Owen Crow Shoe as Pionsenay, two Apache men who are trying to figure out how to deal with the colonisers.

This first part is definitely a wild beast to tame and while the ambition is there, it doesn't mean that the execution necessarily is. You're somehow both surprised by how oddly structured it is but also how safe and ordinary it all feels once the story gets going. And that in itself is a big roadblock as Costner and co-writer Jon Baird—working with a story they developed with Mark Kasdan—struggle to make anything rise above safe or ordinary. None of the many storylines and perspectives introduced are fully fleshed out or even interesting enough to begin with, which becomes even more apparent when you expect a good storyteller to appear and begin to tie them together for a cohesive, thought-provoking finale. What you instead get is mixed results as well as one of the most baffling movie endings put on the big screen in years when the film concludes with a trailer, or perhaps a highlight reel, that resembles a deflating balloon.

The overall dryness of the story is furthermore a disappointment because there are elements that would support an impressive western character study with plenty of pizazz, like John Debney's rather rousing score, J. Michael Muro's wistful cinematography and the actors who are all perfectly decent. Costner himself even orchestrates some promising flashes of greatness, the highlight being a sequence in Montana where Hayes meets Marigold, the Sykes brothers terrorise Ellen and her new husband Walter (Michael Angarano) before Caleb hounds Hayes, leading to the shootout—Bower and Beavers are actually quite entertaining yet intimidating villains whilst Costner and Lee get to play some comedic beats in their shared scenes (excluding one repugnant love scene). Miller and MacPhail also manage to create a few moments of emotional heft even when the script is giving them one-dimensional characters and boring dialogue to work with.

What you're left with is indeed a few individual scenes that actually match Costner's ambition but that's simply not enough when you're watching a three-hour hodgepodge filled with unremarkable character introductions and characters so paper-thin that it basically begs for a trigger warning for anorexia. Very rarely do you get a film that has so much to do, so little to show and absolutely nothing to say about its central conflict, genre or the cruelty that humans are capable of. And that is before the aforementioned highlight reel shows up in your backyard, takes a pistol and shoots your brains out. So exhausting, so underwhelming, so American.

Smileys: Nothing stands out

Frowneys: Ending, story, characterisation

At least the horizon isn't in the centre of the frame in the poster so that's something.


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