Review – Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1

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Overview

Synopsis In 1860s Arizona, hundreds of lives converge in Horizon Valley as Apache warriors, European settlers, and the US Army struggle to resolve bitter life-threatening conflicts.

Length 3 hours, 1 minute

Release Date June 28, 2024

 

Rating R

Distribution Warner Bros.

Directing Kevin Costner

Writing Jon Baird, Kevin Costner

Composition John Debney

Starring Kevin Costner, Sienna Miller, Sam Worthington, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Rooker, Danny Huston, Luke Wilson

There has been no film I’ve been more excited for this year than Horizon: An American Saga. The project has been a three-decade passion project for actor/writer/director/producer Kevin Costner, who first conceived of the project in 1988 and repeatedly pitched the idea throughout his career with little success. It wasn’t until he self-financed $38 million of his own money, mortgaging one of his homes, that the movie could partially move forward.

The project is set to become one of the most ambitious he has ever worked on. The goal is to release the film over four parts, with the first two released this summer. The subsequent two parts were scheduled to immediately follow, but were delayed by the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike and only began production in May. Much like he did with his previous passion projects Dances With Wolves and Open Range, Costner bet his financial well-being on seeing the project to conclusion.

Lo-and-behold, this 36-year passion project finally reached theaters last week and it has become a tragic box office bomb. The film press is running circles around itself to portray its meager $11 million opening weekend as a crisis for the 69-year-old actor’s finances, with lurid stories about emergency planning and panic behind the scenes. Much like Furiosa and The Fall Guy, this summer is proving to be mostly disastrous for non-animated films, besides Inside Out 2, Kung Fu Panda 4, and Despicable Me 4.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Repeated bloody violence throughout the film, with characters being shot, stabbed, and killed with arrows. Several characters are scalped and their scalps are paraded.
Language/Crude Humor: Some coarse language including G**d*** and some Native American slurs.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes.
Sexual Content: One fully-dressed sex scene. Several scenes of partially clothed prostitutes. A scene of a topless woman bathing.
Spiritual Content: Several of the characters are implicitly Christian. One scene takes place in a collapsed Catholic mission.
Other Negative Content: Depictions of racism, murder, and prostitution.
Positive Content: Themes of life, cooperation, hard work, love, family, and hope.

Review

I’ve been excited about Horizon: An American Saga because it is clearly a passion project for one of the greatest filmmakers working in Hollywood. Much like Francis Ford Coppola’s $100 million personal investment into Megalopolis, it felt like an ambitious project with a lot on the line. It is one thing for a prestige drama like The Bikeriders to underperform, knowing it will make up some of its money in Oscar-season DVD sales and digital rentals. This was a big-budget genre film whose success relied upon audiences to be receptive to it.

Fortunately, the movie is quite fascinating. Despite its excessively low 46% Rotten Tomatoes score, Horizon – Chapter 1 is still a markedly ambitious work of storytelling with a great deal to recommend. Its remarkably beautiful cinematography, solid character actor performances, ambitious scale, and thematic implications have set up the first part of a massive story that could prove to be excellent when all is said and done.

Unfortunately, the movie is strangely structured like a television pilot. In its three-hour runtime, roughly six subplots are set up with different strands and themes running in parallel across three different states. The opening is extremely deliberately paced, with a 20-minute prologue that depicts the initial residents of the valley being killed before larger settlements begin to grow. The movie’s inciting incident doesn’t even happen until nearly half an hour into its runtime. Costner’s lead character doesn’t appear until beyond the one-hour mark.

What ties the film together is the titular Horizon Valley, a fictional area of the San Pedro Valley that has become a tiny microcosm of the entire history of the Wild West; White settlers and Apache natives conflict, the US Army is struggling to maintain order, the Civil War is draining resources and flooding the region with families and poor immigrants looking for new opportunities, and the government is instigating citizens to scalp Natives for pay.

Horizon’s settlement itself is illegitimately planted on Apache hunting grounds, meaning that the US Army cannot defend the settlers from raids unless they pick up and move twenty-six miles north. This makes it a perfect metaphor for the complex web of interests that have driven Natives off their lands and put them into conflict with innocent locals. As Danny Huston’s Col. Albert Houghton laments, the Westward expansion is a tragic inevitability. Too many interests are at play and this leaves the poor innocent Americans and Natives alike to suffer beneath the crushing demands of history.

This portrayal of the Old West isn’t without its critics. Plenty of reviews have blasted the film, in comparison to prior treatments of the subject matter in Dances With Wolves and Killers Of The Flower Moon, as being retrograde. However, the film also portrays Natives with a decent amount of complexity. They aren’t merely bloodthirsty savages but people divided between a desire for revolutionary violence and failed attempts at peaceful coexistence. Costner certainly cannot portray Native culture in the authentic manner you’d see in films like Dead Man or Smoke Signals, but certainly sets up his Apache characters with clear motivations and humanity.

The individual story vignettes are also wonderful views into the world of the Old West. There’s a Fort Apache-esc romance between a widowed woman and an Army Lieutenant, a Stagecoach-esc pioneer wagon train crossing the plains, an Eastwood-esc elderly gunslinger escorting a prostitute and a baby to safety, and a boy being taken on a Blood Meridian-esc journey to get revenge on the Apaches. This movie is fast-tracking almost every theme, archetype, and setting in the Western genre. Unfortunately, it leaves the resolutions hanging.

Horizon – Chapter 1 is messy but it’s ambitious in a way that can only come from auteur genius and passion. So much of the film’s analysis ultimately relies upon how Horizon – Chapter 2 brings closure to the majority of these stories, which are left with aggressive cliffhangers by the end of the film. It will also depend on how much the potential third and fourth chapters play into these story arcs. Even though Horizon – Chapter 3 has already begun filming, it is unclear if the box office bomb will halt production. If there are loose strings in the second film, it could leave the entire project incomplete.

With audiences being somewhat more receptive to the film than critics, I’m genuinely hoping that strong word of mouth will be able to turn the box office around and help it make its money back. This summer has already damaged George Miller’s career and buried the possibility of another Mad Max film. It’s also a miracle that Dune: Part II became a blockbuster success after the first film bombed. It would be a shame if audiences continued to ignore ambitious original films in favor of more safe sequels and remakes. Audiences shouldn’t be punishing Hollywood for taking creative risks.

Positives

+ Beautiful cinematography
+ Great character performances
+ Fascinating themes and vignettes

Negatives

- Strange story structure
- Cliffhanger ending
- Deliberate pacing

The Bottom Line

Horizon – Chapter 1 is a slow start to a monstrously ambitious project that hopefully will leave to a climactic and meaningful resolution.

 

7.5

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Tyler Hummel

Tyler Hummel is a Nashville-based freelance journalist, a College Fix Fellow, and a member of the Music City Film Critics Association. He has contributed to Geeks Under Grace, The Living Church, North American Anglican, Baptist News Global, The Tennessee Register, Angelus News, The Dispatch, Voeglin View, Hollywood in Toto, Law and Liberty, The Federalist, Main Street Nashville, Leaders Media, and the Catholic Herald of Milwaukee.

4 Comments

  1. Bessie on July 21, 2024 at 5:56 pm

    At he’d some of it it the Apache have their own language can’t understand what they are saying

  2. Jon on July 21, 2024 at 2:42 pm

    I found the movie much more enjoyable than i’d heard critics say. I love a Western saga and this is a good one. The numerous storylines are a little confusing at first but become clearer as time passes. I like the characters, all seem fine actors, and am looking forward to the 2nd Chapter, hoping for success and Chapters 3 and 4 to follow. Interesting comments that this would better be served as a series instead of a movie(s). Perhaps.

  3. Christi on July 20, 2024 at 10:50 pm

    Great review and exactly where my head is at after watching part 1. I appreciate a story/film that isn’t spoon fed to me. It wasn’t really important to understand exactly who all the characters are. It was important to understand that every day and almost every moment was a struggle and that life was precarious… for all. I’m all in on Horizon. If all parts are able to be completed, the entirety will be an epic tale for the ages.

  4. Pam Johnson on July 8, 2024 at 1:31 am

    We loved the movie. Started out a bit slow but we realize he’s build his characters and the different story lines. Can’t wait for part two in August. When all these story lines come together it’s going to be explosive

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