Credit: Warner Bros.
Blockbuster Beat by Frank Falisi Featured Film

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 — Kevin Costner

June 28, 2024

The film begins with a man and a tripod. He swivels, shifts his body, scrutinizes the line. He’s not making moving pictures, living as he does in the gulp just before the American Civil War. But there is a quasi shutter-click eureka moment, as he recognizes the surveying instrument shows the shot he wants. He walks off to bash a stake into the earth. He returns to his tripod. The camera, the one watching him and showing us his sweaty work, pulls back to reveal the subject of his scrutiny: horizon. The closer you get, the more clear the illusion. Some basic chunk of filmmaking lives and dies by this sleight of hand.

It’s a brief moment of cleverness in a film mostly immune to the feeling. Horizon: An American Saga Chapter 1 is the third feature film directed by Kevin Costner, from a screenplay co-written by Costner and Jon Baird. As a filmmaker, Costner continues to assert that the story of the American West is one that can be told with triumphant major chordal sweep, in spite (or even because) of its incumbent terrors. Like Dances With Wolves (1990) and Open Range (2003) before it, Horizon isn’t delusional about the role settler colonialism, patriarchal violence, and white supremacy played in the creation of “the West.” Rather, it assumes that “the West” was always going to happen, and that the Western is a viable way of processing history instead of legend.

There is, at least, something fanatical at work narratively: radical stretch. Over its three hours, Horizon — the first entry in a planned tetralogy — invokes a narrative structure and tempo more familiar to readers of high, epic fantasy than viewers of sleek streaming content. (For those, like this writer, who haven’t spent much time in the Yellowstone of Costner’s recent work, it’s fair to wonder if that ensemble story moves with this much confident languor.) After the film opens on its lone surveyor plotting out the possibility of a home, it spreads like a mail-order mattress: a white settlement is attacked by Indigenous people; a calvary column helps them pick up the pieces; a splintering occurs between Indigenous brothers; a wagon train crosses the wilderness; a convoluted revenge plot climaxes with a manhunt and murder; and there are many horses.

Through all these chunky threads, some faces are pushed to the fore that shine a little brighter; these are the characters we need to follow in this open-world RPG, most of them familiar collations of type: the lone wolf with a past (Kevin Costner), the sex worker with a dreamy soul (Abbey Lee), the noble-but-emotionally-stunted lieutenant (Sam Worthington), the grieving-but-available frontier widow (Sienna Miller), the vengeance-seeking Apache warrior (Owen Crow Shoe), his peace-minded brother (Tatanka Means), and the blackhat (Jamie Campbell Bower). Their names are intentionally unmentioned here because they aren’t always known or accessible to the spectator, but this tendency is more feature than bug: to move through the world is often to not quite recognize a familiar face, to forget their role in the bigger whole. It’s a shame that Costner’s  story aspiration is so stolid because his appetite for rhythm and portion of plot is distinctly out-of-step with tradition to the point of becoming daffily nearly avant-garde. Occasionally, Horizon feels like a grouping of video game avatars whose players are joysticking right into walls, off-quest. And the film’s ending sequence is frankly stunning, pure montage as sizzle reel pitch that moves between time and space like a dream rather than a history.

Visually, Costner swaddles his constellating Conestogas with thoughtful, occasionally inspired photography. Cinematographer J. Michael Muro’s history as a Steadicam operator gives much of the photography a sense of tactile motion distinctly at odds with the cheap, stocky drone shots that fill up too many streaming shows or films that invoke rather than memorialize the Western. And memorialize Horizon does: if never as rangy, verse-y, or knottily contradictory as Griffith or Ford, Horizon keeps those creators in mind. The Calvary triumphantly enters into frame in a slight overhead shot, moving from its top to bottom while John Debney’s at once notable and anonymous score swells. (It’s galling for how it invokes She Wore a Yellow Ribbon [1949], if sapped of that film’s depth, literally and subconsciously.) The widowed mother and daughter, blonde as Oklahoma corn, are shot with an ethereal gingham glamor, not far from Griffith’s dream-smudged approach to Lillian Gish and Miriam Cooper, but also not close to the way Griffith used the camera to theorize impressions of desire, not answers to it.

Does it go without saying that the legacies of Griffith and Ford are tenuous, not in their approach to the cinematic image — the closest to poetry photography has come — but in how that approach does or doesn’t inflict violence on specific bodies? This is the cinematographic thesis that The Zone of Interest (2023) attempted to articulate: some primal element of cinematic language is bound up in spectacles of white supremacy. You can’t make an American Western without pinging The Birth of a Nation (1915), just as you can’t production design a line of uniforms without opening the container that Triumph of the Will (1935) sprung from. Sharper critics have wrestled with the precise image-implications of depicting violence toward Indigenous people in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), though that its filmmaker is one of the great interrogators of the violence inherent in cinema helps that film complicate its own legacy, not boil it away to spectacle. Horizon frequently behaves as if most of those conversations neither happened nor were worth having.

Varying viewers may suggest varying texts to compare to Costner’s new film project; this writer submits The Iron Horse (1924), a Ford silent made in the same air that Griffith was toiling through America (1924) in. Usually accorded a reverence due to Ford’s kinetic, near-instinctual sense of placing a camera and accommodating action inside its four lines, The Iron Horse was made before Ford saw Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), and lacks the way the filmmaker would go on to wrestle with impressionism toward self-contradiction across the rest of his days. Mostly, The Iron Horse makes an action film out of the ways that Manifest Destiny is neither morally or ethically in question, but rather merely incontrovertible. At its best, Horizon writes a scene between two grizzled veterans played by two grizzled veterans (Danny Huston and Michael C. Rooker) discussing the quandary of policing American settlers: they will simply continue to come west, automatons geared toward their own dreamt destiny. In this scene, Costner’s film comes close to laying bare the cruel violence of the American dream: eyes always toward the horizon, you end up nowhere, stomping out the people who were there before you. It all ends in armageddon.

At its worst, Horizon accepts that end as worthy. Perhaps that’s why it narratively staves off catharsis — as long as it inhabits its dream, it can avoid what it implies. Its presentation of Indigenous people as an image subsumed to narrative quirk — to say nothing of the Black and Chinese people littering the outer rim of its ensemble — betrays a liberalizing, “yes but…” absorption into myth-making. Its sense of history is no more nuanced than what one encounters at Disney World’s Hall of Presidents attraction. Scorsese ruffled feathers for calling a certain tradition of movie-making “theme parks” instead of cinema. Horizon proves that it’s not IP-centric stories or puritanical conceptions of sex and death that define theme park cinema, but instead an image-maker’s approach to the smaller, fugitive moments that inhabit narrative. Lost in Frontierland, Horizon has nowhere to go but forward, stumbling.

DIRECTOR: Kevin Costner;  CAST: Kevin Costner, Sienna Miller, Sam Worthington, Tatanka Means, Luke Wilson;  DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Bros.;  IN THEATERS: June 28;  RUNTIME: 3 hr. 1 min.