Kevin Costner's Return to Westerns In Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1's Is More "Yee-Wha?" Than "Yee-Haw"

Los Angeles Premiere Of "Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1"
Los Angeles Premiere Of "Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1" / Eric Charbonneau/GettyImages

The west beckons. That's true for Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1's opening scene characters measuring the land they plan to live on. It’s also true for writer/director Kevin Costner. The man's filmography includes everything from Field of Dreams to The Bodyguard to telling Clark Kent an "inspiring" story about "hero cake" and drowning horses. However, the Western always draws Costner back into its gravitational pull. Two of his three previous directorial efforts (Dances with Wolves and Open Range) were firmly in this genre. His modern comeback was solidified with Western TV show Yellowstone.

Now, Costner has returned to the big screen with Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1. This big independent production starts an expansive multimedia Western epic spanning four movies. Starring and directed by the Bull Durham leading man (he also co-wrote the script with Jon Baird), Horizon continues Costner’s Western fascination. Unfortunately, Costner's Horizon exploits don't provide many reasons to get invested in this landscape.

A deluge of plotlines inhabit this inaugural chapter of Horizon, nearly all of them entirely separate (presumably they'll eventually intertwine in future installments). One of the most prominent storylines involves Frances Kittredge (Sienna Miller). She's a woman whose family is attacked by indigenous people in the middle of the night. Then there's Lucy (Jena Malone), a woman who exacts violent revenge on a cruel man. That scheme spurs further vengeful violence from Caleb (Jamie Campbell Bower) and Junior Sykes (Jon Beavers). Let's not forget about Matthew Van Weyden (Luke Wilson) trying his best to lead settlers to their new homes.

Costner also appears a little over halfway through the running time as Hayes Ellison. He's a man with a mysterious past, a grizzled demeanor, and a quick hand with a firearm. He's also about to get entangled in some business and strife far larger than himself.

When writing a book, it’s best to grip the reader right away. A single opening chapter might not work perfectly as a standalone piece of art. However, opening lines like “Call me Ishmael” or Alison Bechdel’s first memories of her father in Fun Home immediately transfix. They keep you glued in, eager to see what larger artistic puzzle this striking piece fits into. Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter One, by contrast, is a slog of a kick-off. It does not inspire comparisons to the term “page-turner.” Costner and Baird have weaved a world of buttoned-up Western archetypes and endless generic monologues. Excitement and tension are minimal.

The world of Horizon proves especially tedious on a visual level. What a fatal blow considering the genre this feature inhabits. Westerns, if nothing else, can produce truly striking imagery. Often inhabiting natural landscapes illuminated only by natural light or deeply-detailed sets, Westerns have spectacular cinematography possibilities. Just think of all those grand vistas captured by John Ford. The Ox-Bow Incident has some truly magnificent staging. Don’t forget about Johnny Guitar’s rich color palette, which lent visual vibrancy to a tale of Western societal ostracization.

Horizon has its deeply pleasing visual qualities, namely Autumn-colored Wyoming backdrops dominating one of the film's storylines. Yellow and orange-tinted leaves beautifully fill the screen. Bryan Hurley and Lisa Lovaas have also done a commendable job on the uber-detailed sets and costumes, respectively. However, those virtues can't overcome the staleness of Costner’s direction and J. Michael Muro's cinematography. There’s little variety or ingenuity in how they film core events over the three-hour runtime. Scenes capturing friendly soldier First Lt. Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington) or the wintery domicile of the ominous Mrs. Sykes (Dale Dickey), for instance, have roughly the same camera movements. Horizon leaps all over America yet, save for shifts in the color palette of the shooting locations, Costner’s visuals remain stagnant.

Even the pretty colors emerge through inescapable cleanliness that drags Horizon down. Shot on a series of digital Red cameras with the Redcode RAW format, Horizon's world looks far too sharp for its own good. Even the supposedly grubby interiors of crumbling shops look polished enough to be in a ad. A late line from Hayes about how he’s old and worn-down inspires unintentional chuckles in these visual confines. What element of this world looks lived-in? Even Jon Favreau knew making the terrible Cowboys & Aliens how Westerns need to be shot on film formats. That richly tangible cinematography approach works perfectly for the world of tumbleweeds and high noon shootouts.  

Whether it’s the overly bright lighting, the distractingly crisp images conjured up by digital cameras or even the thoughtless use of a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Horizon never comes off as a true “epic”. Everything looks so sterile. What an affront to the tactile cinematography that made McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Meek's Cutoff esteemed classics. Instead of focusing on soaring imagery, Costner and Baird’s script is far too enamored with lengthy monologues repeating simple ideas endlessly. For instance, Sgt. Major Riordan (Michael Rooker) pontificates how much a youngster's gifts mean to soldiers. It’s a reality the audience is well aware of before Riordan hammers this point home in his didactic lines. Motormouth baddie Caleb Sykes talks endlessly like he's Michael Parks in Red State. One instance of a flirtatious rapport between Kittredge and Gephardt has all its zippy energy sucked out by their garrulous natures.

There’s much endless blather from poorly defined characters here, a fault compounded in its fatalness by some truly egregious miscasting. Luke Wilson is an especially bamboozling choice to play Matthew Van Weyden. Wilson tries his best to muster up a Sterling Hayden or Gregory Peck aura. However, he never comes off as either a believable period piece everyman or an ordinary leader. Under Costner's direction, he just comes off to the audience as Luke Wilson in cowboy gear. Sam Worthington is similarly flawed, with neither Worthington nor the script giving this character something resembling a believable personality. Most bizarrely, Costner's lead performance is peppered with distracting anachronistically modern vocal touches.

Better among the cast is Abbey Lee as sex worker Marigold. This performer is forced to handle some of the movie's worst dialogue once Marigold is stuck with Ellison. However, Lee lends an endearing air to the character that never comes off as condescending or caricatured. She's lending real heart and nuance to a figure other Westerns push to the background. Meanwhile, an intimate scene depicting a disagreement between Pionsenay (Owen Crow Shoe) and his father works so well because of Shoe's performance. He lends subtle flickers of humanity to a guy portraying himself publicly as an immovable leader. Owen Crow Shoe quietly reinforces the vulnerable son tucked beneath Pionsenay’s devil-may-care attitude.

Despite these commendable performances, Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter One delivers shockingly few substantial wins over its 181-minute runtime. Good concepts abound in Horizon, but the execution desperately needed more energy and panache. A clumsy pre-credits montage teasing the next installment in the Horizon saga closes out Chapter One. These images should inspire excitement in audiences for what comes next. However, this trailer just reinforces how little Chapter One stands on its own two feet. The West beckons, but you should ignore that siren call when it comes to Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter One.

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