‘Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1’ Review: Sprawling Yet Thinly Spread, the First Part of Kevin Costner’s Western Epic Feels Like the Set-Up for a TV Miniseries

Arriving in the middle of the art smorgasbord that’s the Cannes Film Festival, a three-hour Western directed by Kevin Costner sounded like it might be just the ticket for a perfect night of counterprogramming: a grandly scaled slice of neo-classical Hollywood. That, after all, describes the other two Westerns Costner has directed (“Dances with Wolves” and “Open Range”). There’s no question that “Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1,” Costner’s fourth outing as a director, gives off some of that traditional flavor.

The movie, set in 1859 in territories that sprawl from Wyoming to Kansas, has stately mesa backdrops that look like they’d fit right into Monument Valley. It’s got a rousing 1950s-syle musical score (by John Debney) that lays on the Old West sentimentality even when dire things are happening. And a good portion of the movie is built around the violence that erupts between settlers and Indigenous tribes — a theme that takes it back to the age when American Westerns were flagrantly racist (which isn’t true of “Horizon,” though when it comes to dealing with Native issues the film is not without its problems).

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Vintage horse-opera trappings aside, one of the most cherished aspects of the classic Western is its pleasingly mythic, rounded storytelling. On that score, though, “Horizon” is not the movie a lot of people may be expecting. Instead of unfurling a Western saga in a solid powerful arc, Costner serves up three hours of anecdotes, cross-cutting among groups of characters, dropping in on situations that are dropped just as quickly, taking a skittery overview of life on the range, and asking the audience, in many cases, to stitch together the backstory of what they’re seeing.

There’s a hallowed place in cinema for multi-character dramas. But “Horizon,” simply put, doesn’t feel like a movie. It feels like the seedbed for a miniseries. Much of what happens is wispy and not very forceful; the film doesn’t build in impact, and it seldom seems to aim in a clear direction. Costner, as an actor, doesn’t show up until an hour in, and when he does, playing a gruff horse trader who’s more than a horse trader, one feels the grounding so much of the film lacks. What you realize, after a while, is that “Horizon” isn’t just a glorified TV series made with more expensively gritty production values. It’s the setup for a TV series. It’s the early stuff we need to know before the drama totally kicks in.

And that feels like a major disappointment. As a stand-alone film (which it isn’t, but let’s pretend for a moment), “Horizon” is by turns convoluted, ambitious, intriguing, and meandering. But it’s never quite moving. It’s too busy laying down narrative tracks and hammering out the minutiae of situations that don’t feel like they’re leading anywhere special.

Costner, to his credit, wants to nudge the Western away from a white hat/black hat mythology that’s now outdated. He wants shades of gray, and characters we can’t pigeonhole as heroes or villains (though there are a few of those). But too often the action feels hurried, both overstaged and underscripted. One of the key locales is the settlement of Horizon, advertised on handbills — a place that’s not quite a place yet, because when people show up to settle there they tend to get killed by the local Apache. We see an Apache raid that ends up in apocalyptic fire, and experience it from inside the home of Frances Kittredge (Sienna Miller) and her daughter, Elizabeth (Georgia MacPhail), the two of whom hide in a hole under the living room, which is so airtight that they have to poke a rifle out of the ground and use the gun barrel as a breathing tube. That’s a vivid detail, and then Frances loses her husband and son. But it’s jarring to take this all in before we’ve even had a sense of who this family is.

The Native characters are the attackers, but we see several extended scenes from their point-of-view. They are never “the other,” the simple enemy. That said, there are two speeches in the movie, one by an Apache war chief (Gregory Cruz) and one by a U.S. cavalry officer (Danny Huston), that address the fundamental issue of the Indigenous tribes trying to stop what they call the “white-eye” settlers who’ve invaded their land. And both speeches, weirdly, make the same point: that even if the Native people are justified, and even if they keep trying to fight the settlers, they’re doomed to lose. The settlers will keep coming. History is not on the Natives’ side. This seems an awfully definitive vision to hold in 1859. And while Costner doesn’t seem unsympathetic to his Native characters, it’s not clear, as of now, how much they’ll take on a life of their own.

The film hopscotches to a ramshackle town where Marigold (Abbey Lee), a perky prostitute in blonde ringlets, is caring for the illegitimate son of Lucy (Jena Malone), who has abandoned her family after trying to kill the man who made her pregnant. His two adult sons — their names are Junior (Jon Beavers) and Caleb (Jamie Campbell Bower), though you can just call them Mean and Meaner — go looking for her, but it’s to their misfortune that Marigold, the boy’s caretaker (how did she become his caretaker? That’s one of several scenes that seem to be on the cutting-room floor), meets Hayes Ellison (Costner), who with his mustache and hat and laconic manner and Colt .45 is the closest we’re going to get to Gary Cooper. Costner makes him a man of few words, and his face-off against the taunting Caleb is a nice bit of staging: what a real shootout probably looked like. Hayes and Marigold look like they’re destined to become a couple, and then, at a certain point, it seems like they are a couple. Fine, but did we miss something?

There are also scenes set on a covered-wagon trail that center on the Proctors, an effete English couple who’ve joined the Westward movement. They have a very naïve and almost charmingly entitled attitude (they don’t realize that they have to work, too — that the other settlers are not their servants), but Matthew Van Weyden, the leader of the wagon train, sets them straight. He’s played by Luke Wilson, who is very good, shaking off any semblance of his usual irony. Meanwhile, Frances and her daughter wind up being taken care of at a U.S. Army encampment, where First Lieutenant Trent Gephart (Sam Worthington) attracts Frances’ attention by being both handsome and too gentlemanly for his own good.

A few of these characters are interesting; none of them are memorable. “Horizon” is no “Lonesome Dove,” though Costner tries, and mostly succeeds, at setting aside Western clichés about what towns really looked like, and how frontier life worked. The real problem is the script (by Costner and Jon Baird), which is shapeless. It doesn’t weave these stories together; it stacks them next to each other like a series of cabooses. Yet I think the idea is that the design of it all will come into focus as we see “Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 2” (later this summer), and then, at some point, “Chapter 3” (which is now scheduled) and maybe, if all goes according to plan, more chapters. I seriously hope not. I’m not sure how much juice there is to squeeze out of these characters, but even if there is some I don’t want to see movies turn into television. Just about every Western of the studio era came in at two hours or less, and so did most of the revisionist Westerns (and some of those were complicated). There’s a reason for that. It’s all the time they needed.

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