Film Review: Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1


Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1
Director: Kevin Costner
Territory Pictures
In Theaters: 06.28

If there’s one quality that defines Kevin Costner as a filmmaker, it’s audacity. Beginning with  Dances With Wolves in 1990, the actor-director has taken on some risky projects and rarely compromises with them. Horizon: An American Saga—an epic western being released in theaters in two parts this summer, with a third currently in production in Southern Utah—isn’t just his boldest move yet, it’s a full-on death or glory charge into the unknown.

The first chapter serves primarily as a prologue to the sprawling saga, which spans the period of the American Civil War. The film follows four narrative threads, and begins with white men plotting land for settling in the San Pedro Valley. When a nearby Apache tribe attacks, burning the settlement to the ground,  Frances Kittredge (Sienna Miller, Foxcatcher, American Sniper) and her daughter Elizabeth (Georgia McPhail) are among the only survivors.  When they are discovered by a cavalry company led by General Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington, Avatar, Hacksaw Ridge), he watches over them and helps them find a new life and resettle near the military Fort. Meanwhile, Ellen Harvey (Jena Malone, Contact, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) lives with her young son and husband in the Wyoming Territory, when a powerful and dangerous family by the name of Sykes comes looking for her. The child has been left with Ellen’s sister, Marigold Harvey (Abbey Lee, Mad Max: Fury Road), a sex worker who is set upon by one of the Sykes boys, Caleb (Jamie Campbell Bower, Stranger Things) when she is rescued by Hayes Ellison (Costner), and the two end up on the run with the child. On the Santa Fe Trail in Western Kansas, a wagon train led by Matthew Van Weyden (Luke Wilson, Bottle Rocket, 12 Mighty Orphans) must brave dangerous territory while dealing with internal squabbles, and Elias Janney (Scott Haze, Jurassic World: Dominion), a survivor from the San Pedro attacks, leads a group to hunt down the indigenous Apaches and exact vengeance.

Chapter 1 certainly requires patience. The sheer number of characters—and the fact that the hefty 181-minute runtime is only getting the ball rolling on a larger story—is likely to lose a lot of people, yet Costner handles the various threads with focus and precision. I found myself quickly swept up by the rich, involving stories and attention to detail. The film plays like the Sunday night installment of an old-fashioned TV miniseries, but with a cinematic sensibility that more than justifies its presence on the big screen. It may be difficult to fully judge it yet, as it’s far from a complete movie, but if we’re being honest, the same can be said for nearly everything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Horizon doesn’t give us a one-shot villain or a big CGI free-for-all climax to create the illusion of being a self-contained story, it does bring the audience into a different world populated by compelling characters and situations. It should be noted that the opening act is quite intense and violent, though Costner does an admirable job of trying to give enough context to the attack on the settlement to make it clear that painting indigenous people as villains is hardly the intention. While I would have preferred a focus on a lead indigenous character in Chapter 1, there are indications that we will see more.

Costner brings a lot of presence to the role of Hayes Ellison, though one of the biggest surprises for his fans may be just how little screen time he gives himself. Ellison is part of an ensemble, and certainly not the most fleshed-out character in Chapter 1. Miller and McPhail as the Kitterege women, along with Worthington as Captain Gephardt, are more focal to the film, and all do stellar work, with Worthington giving one of his most natural performances. Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Walking Dead) adds another likable presence to the story thread as Sgt. Major Riordan, an officer whom Gephardt has enlisted to aid Frances and Elizabeth.  Jena Malone and Abbey Lee are riveting as the Harvey sisters, and Lee’s complex portrayal of a sex worker trying to make a living has a lot more nuance and humanity than is generally seen in the genre. In fact, the focus of this chapter is largely on the female characters and their efforts to survive and thrive in a decidedly harsh world.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 is a strong beginning to what promises to be a truly epic tale, and while Costner’s vision isn’t connecting with everyone, it certainly connected with me. In a summer when so little has stood out, the first part of Horizon is the kind of transportive moviegoing experience that made me fall in love with the medium. If you’re a fan of Westerns and don’t mind a film that takes its time, there’s a lot to admire and enjoy. –Patrick Gibbs

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