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'Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1' Review

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June 29, 2024
Hunter Friesen
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It’s almost impossible to judge Kevin Ccostner’s grand return to the Western genre on its own terms, as Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1 truly lives up to the foundational groundwork its title implies. The structure and pacing of television has never been more replicated in the cinema than this, save for maybe those The Chosen specials that sneakily top the box office every few months. Storylines are picked up and put down like a kid surrounded by toys, with their only moment of intersection coming in the form of a flyer with the words “HORIZON” printed across the top, acting as a calling to move to where it beckons.

With a sprawling runtime of 181 minutes and nearly 181 names within the cast, there’s both plenty of time and plot elements to keep track of. The seemingly most important one leads us off at the titular town, a makeshift place nestled right at the bend in the river in the San Pedro Valley. The settlers founded their homes atop the graves of those who had come before and been murdered by the Apache. Ignoring that warning leads to more bloodshed, which Costner films with clear-cut brutality. The threat of death looms as large as the prospect of personal freedom, with the settlers feeling akin to their ancestors on the Mayflower.

Costner and co-writer Jon Baird offer some time away from the white settlers, giving a glimpse into the politics within the Apache. An eye-for-eye mentality forms, dividing each camp between those who seek carnage and those who just want to survive. The one thing that remains constant is the fact that the wagons won’t ever stop, with two settlers arriving for each one killed. Where this angle goes is still up in the air, with this chapter only featuring the initial trading of blows. But considering Martin Scorsese just delivered what could be considered the seminal modern take on this topic in Killers of the Flower Moon, it’ll be hard for Costner to reach the bar.

It takes nearly an hour for Costner to show up as his character Hayes Ellison, who gets entangled with a local sex worker (Abbey Lee), the child she cares for, and a Montanan crime family hunting them down. As the only A-lister in this mammoth cast of semi-famous and unknown players, Costner’s presence makes you sit up a little straighter and lean forward. That shine from Yellowstone hasn’t worn off, although his romance with a woman thirty years younger than him doesn’t come across as sensually as he thinks it does.

There isn’t a clear best and worst storyline, with all of them falling near the middle, give or take a few notches in either direction. However, it’s not exactly a fair fight as some characters appear much more than others. Sienna Miller and Costner are given multiple pass-throughs, while Isabelle Fuhrmann and the fourth-billed Giovani Ribisi hardly have a line of dialogue. The final five minutes are reserved for a montage of what’s to come in the next chapter, which, I’ll admit, looked pretty decent.

What also looks decent is J. Michael Muro’s photography. He perpetually captures the grandeur of the plains and desert rocks, creating a barren paradise where the danger is just as captivating as the reward. This is epic, old-fashioned filmmaking, the likes of which we haven’t seen before in a long time. The sense of Costner laying it all on the line permeates every moment, especially with John Debney’s sweeping score providing several enrapturing moments. The track “End of Massacre,” which featured heavily in the trailer, is one of the best of the year.

Chapter 2 arrives in a little under six weeks, a blessing as I don’t think I’d be able to remember every character and plot point if I had to endure the traditional one-year wait. Although I’d probably never rewatch it just for itself, this first chapter is a serviceable beginning with just enough little nuggets here and there to sustain my interest.

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