de facto film reviews 3.5 stars

The Western is a genre almost as old as film itself. From the Golden Age of Ford, Mann, Daves, Boetticher, and others to the darker 1960s and 70s under Leone, Peckinpah, and Eastwood, to the early 90s resurgence to the present, the Western has been used to explore American history and the American character. To date, all of Kevin Costner’s films as director have been Westerns either in fact (Dances with WolvesOpen Range) or in spirit (The Postman). With Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1, Costner continues his efforts in the genre, for the first time serving as co-writer as well as director and star. While not quite up to his best Western, which is Open RangeHorizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 is a very solid opening chapter in the planned four-film series.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

The film opens on a piece of land near a river in the San Pedro Valley. A father and son are surveying it and setting stakes. From up on a ridge, two young Apache boys are watching, thinking they are seeing some sort of strange game. But their elders know what is really going on, and the family of settlers is killed. Some short time later, another white man named Desmarais (Angus Macfadyen) arrives, searching for the town of Horizon which is advertised on a poster he’s carried with him. In the ruins of a burned-out church, he’s told that he has already passed through the area, and there is no town. Near the river crossing, he finds and buries the family. The film then cuts to the Montana Territory, where Lucy (Jena Malone) shoots the man she’s staying with before escaping with her baby. Back in the Valley, a settlement has arisen, small, but seeming to thrive. One night after a town dance, Apache warriors, led by Pionsenay (Owen Crow Shoe) attack the town and burn it to the ground. A young boy named Russell (Etienne Kellici) escapes the town and rides to Camp Gallant, a settlement miles away where the Army keeps troops. Near Horizon, a group of settlers attempt to take refuge in the home of James (Tim Guinee) and Frances (Sienna Miller) Kittredge. But by the next morning, the house has fallen and most of those inside are dead. Frances and her daughter Elizabeth (Georgia MacPhail) have escaped into a cellar and survive, though they have to be dug out by a troop of soldiers led by Lieutenant Gephardt (Sam Worthington) and Sergeant Riordan (Michael Rooker). Frances and Elizabeth return to camp with the soldiers. In the aftermath, Pionsenay argues with his leader, Tuayeseh (Gregory Cruz) about the best course of action. Pionsenay wants to press the attack. Tuayeseh recognizes that the white settlers won’t stop coming, and wants to attempt to keep the peace. A furious Pionenay takes the members of the tribe who agree with him and sets out on his own. Russell takes up with a few of the remaining settlers to go hunt Apache for bounty, and Horizon is mostly empty again.

Meanwhile Lucy, now living with her son in the Wyoming Territory and having changed her name to Ellen, is married to Walter (Michael Angarano), seemingly a more gentle man than the one she’d had to shoot to escape. Marigold (Abbey Lee) is a prostitute who lives with them and helps take care of the boy, Sam. When a group of riders arrives in town, Marigold spots that Hayes Ellison (Costner) has money, and convinces him to come to visit her later that day. Walter and Lucy travel to some property he owns and has seeded with gold to try to convince some travelers to purchase. But it turns out that these men are Junior (Jon Beavers) and Caleb (Jamie Campbell Bower) Sykes, the sons of James Sykes, the man that Lucy had shot, but, as it turns out, hadn’t killed. They’ve been sent by their mother (Dale Dickey) to look for Lucy and Sam. On the way to visit Marigold, Hayes has a deadly run-in with Caleb Sykes, and soon he and Marigold are on the run with Sam. The film also begins to cut to the story of a wagon train on the Santa Fe Trail which is traveling to Horizon, drawn by the now all-too-familiar poster. Led by Matthew Van Weyden (Luke WIlson), the group includes Owen Kittredge (Will Patton) and his three daughters, artist Hugh Proctor (Tom Payne) and his wife Juliette (Ella Hunt), and some assorted rough characters. Pieces of these groups stories begin to tie together as this first chapter of the story comes to an end, loomed over in the East by the mysterious Bailey Pickering (Giovanni Ribisi), the man whose name appears at the bottom of the posters advertising Horizon.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Costner and co-writers Jon Baird and Mark Kasdan have put a lot of pieces in play in this film, setting the stage for the remainder of the story. But something that really drew me in initially is that true to the film’s title, it starts out as the tale of Horizon as a place rather than of any specific character. It’s nearly an hour into the film before there are any characters who stay with the story. It makes for an interesting dichotomy. There isn’t a great deal of depth to the characters yet, as there are so many to introduce, but I found many of them intriguing enough to see where the next film takes them. Especially as the film gets deeper into its runtime and the stories continue to connect. For example, nothing is made directly of the fact that there is a Kittredge family on the wagon train when we know there was already a Kittredge family in Horizon, most of whom are now dead, but the connection is there for those paying attention.

Costner has always been a director who makes use of scope and scale, and that continues here. He and cinematographer J. Michael Muro take great advantage of the incredible Utah shooting locations. I’ve read complaints that Horizon should have just been a TV show, but I’m glad that it isn’t. The epic look and feel of the film is made for the theater. With such a large cast, there’s a range of performance quality, but Costner gets great work out of many of his actors. Standouts include Costner himself, Sienna Miller, Gregory Cruz, Luke Wilson, and a beautifully gentle performance from Michael Rooker. Also boosting the film is a terrific score from John Debney. It has a traditional Western sound and really adds to the scope of the film.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 is one of the better films of 2024 so far, and I’m very much looking forward to Chapter 2 in August. It’s a classic-style Western on a grand scale, and I really hope that Costner ends up getting to complete the full saga of Horizon.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 is in theaters now.