Horizon: An American Saga, review: Kevin Costner may have just invented granddad cinema

Horizon: An American Saga
Horizon: An American Saga

A couple of years ago, when Top Gun: Maverick was riding high, the term ‘dad cinema’ caught on as a way to describe the few Hollywood films that took their cue from the pre-CG, pre-superhero age.

Well, with his first feature in 21 years, Kevin Costner may have just invented granddad cinema. Horizon: An American Saga is a western of the breed John Ford made in the 1940s and 50s: earnest, stately and – even in the face of dire odds – humane and hopeful; full of crisply drawn characters and wide landscapes golden with promise, and without a crumb of cynicism in sight. It’s just the first chapter of a two-part whole, with the second to follow in mid-August. (Costner has promised a further two chapters, yet to be filmed, after that).

A possible challenge is that the film is virtually cliffhanger-free, so audiences will have to be coaxed back on vibes alone, but those vibes are warmingly moreish. Costner and Jon Baird’s tonally precise script has three main stories play out side by side – but takes its time with each, allowing their flavours to build in long, unhurried scenes. In Costner’s section, he plays Hayes Ellison, a lone rider with a moustache like a hoof print who rides into the mining town of Watts Parish, befriends a young woman of negotiable virtue (Abbey Lee), and summarily becomes embroiled in a deadly feud.

Then there’s Frances Kitteridge (Sienna Miller), a stoical pioneer whose town is put to the torch by Apaches: after a rescue she falls in with the Union troops at Fort Gallant, where she takes a shine to Sam Worthington’s handsome lieutenant. In the final hour a third plot eases into view, as a string of wagons trundle down the Oregon Trail, and Luke Wilson’s group leader does his best to keep order as a snooty British couple (Ella Hunt and Tom Payne) irk their earthier travelling companions.

Native tribes are a recurring and rarely friendly presence, though Costner wisely resists the pressure to take a line: settling land and defending it, here, are shown to be equally noble pursuits.

Part of the pleasure of Horizon is the sheer, magisterial sweep of the thing – with mountains and buttes and mesas like these, who needs CG? But its texture lives in small, telling details: we often learn about characters from their approaches to work, be it honest manual labour or otherwise. (When Lee tries to seduce Costner, and he gruffly asks her if she shouldn’t be looking after her landlady’s child, she replies with a smile: “I am”.)

Perhaps its full grandeur won’t be apparent until these tales are completed in part two. But there’s more than enough grandeur here to be getting on with.

Cert 15, 181 mins; in cinemas from June 28