‘Horizon: An America Saga – Chapter 1’ Review: For The Love Of The Plains

Aaron Neuwirth reviews the ambitious first chapter of Kevin Costner's expansive, multi-part Western, Horizon: An American Saga. It has room to grow.
User Rating: 6

Director, writer, and actor Kevin Costner certainly wants to keep showing audiences how the West was won. Horizon: An American Saga is Costner’s most ambitious attempt yet, and he’s putting much of his own funding behind the project to make it happen. Chapter 1 is a three-hour epic representing only a fourth of what Costner has in mind to fully realize this story focused on the expansion of the American West. At a time when prestige streaming series rule the land, does this initial entry show the goods as far as delivering a proper cinematic Western? Well, there is a lot to like here and a lot of promise regarding where things are headed. Still, as with any story trying to juggle numerous storylines, some are more engaging than others. That comes down to any number of things, but looking at just this first installment, while there’s more to be desired, there’s still enough to be engaged with.

Detailing the plot would be like writing a TV recap, given how expansive this narrative is. However, it suffices to say that this chapter is set during the early 1860s when the Civil War was still raging. One storyline focuses on a small settlement being ravaged by the Apache tribe and the aftermath that comes of this. Another concerns a stolen baby by an abused woman and the men who are after her. The journey of a wagon train is highlighted in another section of the film. And then there’s the gang hellbent on going after the various Indigenous individuals for their own idea of justice.

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The first hour of this story struggles a bit to find its footing. When the film’s writer, director, and star waits a full hour to show us his character based on all the preamble needed, one starts to wonder what kind of efforts were being made to make this story even tighter. As it stands, there’s excitement to be had in seeing some genuinely tense siege footage as we watch settlers being killed by the Apache, who do not want these people on their land. At the same time, establishing other characters and aiming for a sense of thematic cohesion doesn’t come as smoothly as one would hope.

Much of this comes down to the writing. While a Western is inherently stylized, this film does tend to let characters get carried away in elongated discussions, almost as a rebuke to the minimalism that made so many Westerns of the 60s and 70s a cooler endeavor. Here, while the sparring partners can sometimes nail the gruffness required (Costner shines best in one encounter where he says next to nothing while his opponent rattles on), many scenes find characters practically mapping out speeches to one another, leaving little room for nuance. Perhaps this will ultimately help get things out of the way for the proceeding chapters, but it did feel noticeable here.

Tone also became a concern. Horizon is often deadly serious about everything occurring until it isn’t. I’m all for a film finding a space for fun, but the film does feel the most like a “shoulda been a series” whenever gears shift entirely for the sake of lighter moments rather than more naturally finding the space for a smile to eke out. Michael Rooker, doing what I believe is an Irish accent, gets pushed into the less successful version of this as a Union Army sergeant with a heart of gold. Meanwhile, Luke Wilson’s wagon train leader has a more natural position of finding scenarios where humor can naturally come through.

Speaking of the cast, there are some standouts and others who fit well simply because of the costumes, facial hair, and other choices. Costner, despite assigning himself the most standard white savior role possible, is good here and shines in the minimal time he is featured (which may surprise some). However, his choice of hat for his character is baffling (seriously, it stinks). Sienna Miller also gets a chance to shine as a woman who survives a terrible situation only to find a way through her struggles. Tom Payne plays the exact opposite of what he delivered in Furiosa¸ rolling into this film as a British artist, along with his betrothed (Ella Hunt), and having no idea how to properly function on a wagon train. I see the potential here and look forward to what comes of it.

Other actors aren’t necessarily doing spectacular work but fulfill their status as character actors fit for these positions. I’m looking at Will Patton, Jeff Fahey, Danny Huston, and Jamie Campbell Bower in this regard. Bower, in particular, does everything he can to show us a character designed to be hated, and the film doesn’t take too long to get into what that leads to. Will there be more to be said for the Native American actors such as Owen Crow Shoe and Tatanaka Means as this series continues? Who’s to say. Still, I would hope the director of Dances With Wolves has good plans for cast members with plenty to offer regarding a whole other level of contextual understanding.

As far as the production goes, the great thing about Westerns is that they don’t have to cost a lot, yet they still tend to be among the most cinematic offerings. The use of the land does well to provide incredible imagery, and J. Michael Muro’s cinematography is pretty grand. Along with the production design, costumes, and other elements, an immersiveness takes place to get audiences into the mindset one would hope for with an epic like this. John Debney’s terrific score only adds to all of this. However, I can’t say hearing the latest rendition of “Amazing Grace” over the credits was the best choice.

With so much effort being put into creating a fully realized vision, one does wonder how well Chapter 1 stands as a complete effort, regardless of what’s to follow. In all honesty – it doesn’t. That’s not me calling out the film, as there is full knowledge that this is only the first part of a story. However, there is something to be said about multiple-part journeys that still feel like they deliver an individual set of stories that ultimately accomplish something. With so many moving parts, as mentioned, not all of them will be fully satisfying. I’m happy to see promise in some while others gave me about what I needed. That being said, by the end of this film, which builds to a montage of what to expect in the next entry, it says something that the couple minutes’ worth of clips felt like far more would be taking place and feel like more of a challenge when it comes to thematic complexity.

Horizon: An American Saga is a bold proposition to be made by a filmmaker. Even with my reservations, it’s hard to come down on something attempting to offer so much. Yes, I wish the writing was a little better and that the balance felt a little less chaotic, but I can still approve of what has been offered, knowing more exciting things are coming. As an assemblage of a lot of talent, this may be a giant Western project with limited appeal for audiences of today, but it does speak to so many ideas of what a Western can accomplish. Attempting to localize all of this within one expansive narrative is an admirable form of innovation. So, for a few dollars more, I’m still hopeful to see what awaits us in the West.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 opens in theaters on June 28, 2024.
Chapter 2 opens on August 16.

6
Fair
Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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