Movies · Reviews

‘Horizon: An American Saga’ Begins What Looks to Be a Majestic Western Epic

You’ll leave the theater immediately excited for Chapter 2.
Horizon Chapter One
By  · Published on July 5th, 2024

If you’re unfortunate enough (like me) to call Twitter your daily watercooler, then the comments you’ve seen there might have you convinced that the first part of Kevin Costner‘s multi-film western epic is a well-deserved bomb at the box-office on its opening weekend. While it’s true that Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 isn’t exactly filling seats, that has nothing to do with the film’s quality, and instead is far more related to viewer expectations. The film is a three-hour western drama, just the first part of something bigger by design (it’s right there in the title, folks) destined to leave some with a minor feeling of incompleteness, but it’s also a wholly engrossing experience that’s at times thrilling, tragic, hokey, messy, and beautiful. Horizon isn’t just the start of an epic, it’s a grand, ensemble western the likes of which we just don’t see anymore — and it’s a film you’ll probably regret not seeing on the biggest screen possible if you simply sit back and wait to watch it at home.

As America’s civil war rages on to the east, a small group of settlers arrive at a remote riverbed in New Mexico to stake their claim on a place they’ll call home. The invaders are summarily slaughtered by Apaches, but it’s not long before more white settlers arrive nearby and put shovel to dirt on the beginnings of a town. They too, are attacked by the indigenous tribe put off by the newcomers’ (mis)treatment of the land and its natural bounties, but this time some survivors are left to see the next morning. Some decide to hold their ground and rebuild, others head off in search of vengeance, and a small group, which includes the recently widowed Frances (Sienna Miller) and her daughter, take shelter with a Union Army battalion led by Lt. Gephart (Sam Worthington).

Elsewhere, in Wyoming, a small band of horse traders arrives at a small “town” in search of rest and relaxation, but Hayes Ellison (Costner) instead finds trouble. A woman (Jena Malone) is on the run after leaving the father of her child for dead, and Hayes’ sense of honor and dislike of bullies lands him right in the middle of it all. Meanwhile, a wagon train headed up by a man named Van Weyden (Luke Wilson) makes its way through Montana, and while Native tribes pose a possible threat, there’s rumblings from within that might be every bit as dangerous.

Those are the three main threads running through Horizon: Chapter 1, but they’re far from the only storylines and characters to be found here. Numerous other characters arrive on screen with their own wants and needs, their own morals and determinations, but each of them, down to the very last one, is a cog in a giant wheel, just trying to survive another day. Some choose violence while others value compassion, some act out of greed while others take a more charitable path, and all of them understand the inevitability that is manifest destiny. To many 19th-century American settlers, the move west is the mountain they have to climb simply because it’s there, and that drive remains even as the truth settles in that this particular “mountain” promises suffering, hardship, and death above all else.

The script, co-written by Costner and Jon Baird, devotes part of its three-hour running time to the Native people as we see their reaction to this westward expansion tear a tribe apart. Just as the settlers are divided in how to proceed, so are the indigenous peoples forced to decide how to welcome them — with peace, or with moonlight raids. While Costner’s Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves (1990) explores the idea with far more detail, screentime, and nuance, its inclusion here acknowledges the Native experience as part of the whole even as it focuses more specifically on that westward drive and the various personalities who made it happen.

To be clear, this is an epic ensemble, and that means that there’s really no lead character or central storyline. Costner himself doesn’t even show up until an hour in, and while he can’t help but project the Gary Cooper-like weight of a star, it never feels like he’s lifting himself above the fray. We might not get as much time with certain characters as you’d hope, but Horizon: Chapter 1 is less a story about individuals and more a tale of people and place on an inevitable collision with each other and with history itself. Some recognizable faces die within minutes or simply exit stage left, while others see their story continue, but big or small, known or unknown, the cast does strong work across the board. Ella Hunt, Danny Huston, Michael Rooker, Will Patton, Tatanka Means, Isabelle Fuhrman, Michael Angarano, James Russo, Jeff Fahey, Dale Dickey, Jamie Campbell Bower, Giovanni Ribisi — every few minutes a new face appears breathing life into a new character, a new dilemma, a new corner of this grandest of stories.

Costner’s no stranger to the western, having starred in great ones like Silverado (1985) and Wyatt Earp (1994), and directed two modern classics in Dances With Wolves and Open Range (2003). His vision for Horizon encompasses four films — Chapter 2 hits theaters in August while Chapter 3 is currently filming — and that inevitable lack of expected closure with each installment is just something viewers will have to do without. The argument has already been made that the project belongs on television, but while it could easily exist as a twelve-episode limited series in the vein of Taylor Sheridan’s 1883 (2021-2022), Costner knows there’s something magical about a western on the big screen.

Cinematographer J. Michael Muro, who also lensed Open Range, knows that too. He’s also aware of what both Costner and the western itself demand, and he delivers in ways both stylish and subdued. From a striking profile shot of a boy racing for his life on horseback and a shootout that ends in atypical framing and reflection, to wide vistas, mountains, and plains popping with color and warmth, Horizon: Chapter 1 finds its fair share of beauty. It serves in stark contrast to the ugliness of man, something Costner and Muro capture with brief but powerful scenes of violence. There’s brutality here, and the camera doesn’t shy away even as women and kids fall victim to the carnage.

The specificity of the camera’s gaze carries on beyond the beauty and the action in ways far more subtle, showing an appreciation for both the western “genre” and filmmaking in general. One sequence follows Hayes and Bower’s sniveling but vicious thug on a slow walk up a hill, and it’s as suspenseful a sequence as you’re likely to see in cinemas this year. Other villains manufacture an armed standoff between children in an attempt to teach the white boy his supposed “rights” when it comes to the Native people, and it’s utterly harrowing to watch with the knowledge that it’s not far removed from how hate and violence are passed between generations even today.

Character introductions do double duty with the film’s themes as they’re highlighted against open skies and vast landscapes. The land is theirs, they believe, and reaching Horizon — a newly minted town, an open space offering freedom and a home to anyone who sees the flyers — is their destiny, but Costner and Horizon: Chapter 1 know that’s as far from the truth as the open range was from the East coast. There are plenty of villainous characters here, but the film’s truth about westward expansion doesn’t suggest the regular folks are numbered among them. They’re people caught up in something far bigger than they know, and the film does beautiful work in telling their story.

Passion is somewhat under-appreciated when it comes to our subjective appreciation for art. We each have our own standards as far as what makes a film good or bad, but too few of us recognize and commend the role that a filmmaker’s passion and enthusiasm play in a film’s “success.” We don’t watch Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) because it’s good (it’s not) or because “it’s so bad it’s good” — that concept is bullshit — we watch it because Wood’s passion for filmmaking was undeniable despite his severe lack of talent. Costner is every bit as passionate about filmmaking and westerns, but the difference here is that he’s also a fantastically skilled director. He’s not flashy, he’s maybe too sincere for some of you, but he’s a strong filmmaker who lives and breathes cinema, a director who cares about and respects the art form as both entertainment and a document of our interests, interactions, and histories. Dances With Wolves, Open Range, and now Horizon: Chapter 1 all serve as evidence of that.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.