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‘Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1’ (review)

In film criticism, we use “epic” as a shorthand for a long form film with a large cast and sprawling story, but the classical definition of the term is a work that details the mythic origin of a nation, or people. Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid and the Old English Beowulf being the preeminent examples.

An epic attempts to encapsulate and contextualize the whole sweep of history into a story from which a people may draw meaning.

Such is the ambition of Kevin Costner’s unprecedented four-part Western epic, Horizon: An American Saga.

To my knowledge no filmmaker has ever attempted a single original fictional story over four parts, filmed consecutively, for commercial filmmaking.

Only Peter Jackson’s monumental Lord of the Rings trilogy comes close in scale and that had the benefit of being an adaptation of a well loved property.

Costner, appropriately enough for a story about pioneers, is on his own.

I believe an important step in film criticism is taking the movie on its own terms before we insist upon critique.

For example, I would never criticize a film for being four hours, but rather an appropriate criticism might be that its story did not justify the expenditure of time. After a rapturous reception at Cannes, I have seen many critics struggle to accept the film on its own terms as the first act of a larger story. This is to be expected when one considers that the formal structure of the story presented here is almost unique in the history of American filmmaking.

All that is preamble, essentially, to saying that this review has to be a critique of what is present, informed by the context that what is present isn’t beholden to the classical three act structure of a complete story, but rather as a part of a heretofore unseen whole, and if it is to be honestly evaluated it must be done so on a different criterion than most films.

On that basis, I think Horizon is a qualified success.

The film follows three interlocking plot threads: First, the cycle of violence that precedes and follows an Apache attack on the Horizon frontier camp; secondly a cowhand with a shady past’s passing infatuation for a mining camp prostitute draws him into a deadly family feud; and finally, a wagon train on the prairie, unaware that Horizon has been attacked, makes its way across the Midwest with settlers looking for a new life there. Each segment is given the level of care and craft that one would expect if it were the sole subject of its own film, and together they give almost the impression that Costner is trying to encapsulate the entire century plus history of the Western genre into a single story.

The first story is the most keenly developed, with an excellent prologue and several strands dancing around it by the film’s end.

The first forty five minutes of the film are built around the Apache attack and it is a startling set piece, one of the best that I can ever recall in a Western, and you really get the benefit of the added run time in developing the motives and reactions of the Apache themselves.

There’s a sequence where an Apache is hacked to death by members of another tribe that isn’t explained until the tribal council after the attack that re-contextualizes everything you just saw: the town disrupted the grazing patterns of the animals the Apache hunt and when they moved to new grounds they were attacked by the tribes that claimed them. This is not a story of civilization vs barbarism, as some critics have interpreted, but “brother pitted against brother, for the withering fruits of the land” to paraphrase the Bible verse quoted in the prologue.

The second story is the one that features Costner, and it was pretty shocking to find that he does not appear until an hour into the film.

This bit feels a lot more like the “psychological westerns” of the 1950’s filtered through a contemporary lens.

Costner plays Hayes Ellison, a cowboy with a shady past who is in the wrong place at the wrong time as he finds himself infatuated with a lady of the night (Abbey Lee) at the same time a family of killers have come to claim the child she’s watching for her landlady. The second best sequence in the film, an enormously suspenseful walk up the hill between Ellison and a psychotic killer who is openly tailing him to find which house he’s going to in the guise of “making conversation” is just fantastic.

It culminates in the lone traditional gun duel of the film and sets into motion Costner being tracked by the rest of the family for revenge.

This plotline is the subject of my largest critique of the film, that the psychology that would motivate Ellison to commit himself so fully to a woman in danger he’s just met isn’t justified in the action of this film, and so it can come off as a contrivance, but it also seems clear that this character is being shadowed in mystery so that we can get further development in the next film.

The final plot line which stars Luke Wilson as a trail guide trying to keep his settlers alive as they move across the plain to Horizon, while mitigating tensions between upper class and hand to mouth settlers is the least developed of the three and also the one that feels most like prestige television, given how much of the same ground has been covered in the Yellowstone prequel, 1883.

That said, Wilson has always been a fine dramatic actor and his innate likeability in the form of a western hero calls to mind James Stewart’s roles in the Westerns of Anthony Mann.

Horizon is being hotly debated as a piece of cinematography with a number of people online arguing about whether or not it “looks like television”, a charge which is aided by the 1.85 aspect ratio the film was shot in and the ongoing kerfuffle about the look of digital film.

For my part I thought cinematographer J. Michael Munro (Open Range) took tremendous advantage of not only the scenery, but classical film composition techniques to create a craftsmanship that is generally not seen even in prestige television. There are startling shots in this film, and the night raid of the Apache I thought draws a good balance between readability and atmosphere as far as low light digital photography.

What impressed me most about the film was its pacing: it was the quickest three hours I’ve spent in a theater in some time.

I think if you’re willing to go on an epic journey about the settlement of the west, the fact that this film builds to a series of cliffhangers and a montage of scenes to come rather than a plethora of false finishes greatly aids in the pacing. That said, you need to accept that you’re going to see a three hour first act and not in the way that most film series are a serialization of complete stories unto themselves that tie in together, but just a first act.

There’s no larger catharsis in this film, and I can see how that might deter some people.

What’s here is great, but only if you’re willing to go on the ride.



*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Kevin Costner, Howard Kaplan, Mark Gillard
Screenplay by Jon Baird, Kevin Costner
Story by Jon Baird, Kevin Costner, Mark Kasdan
Directed by Kevin Costner
Starring Kevin Costner, Sienna Miller, Sam Worthington,
Giovanni Ribisi,  Michael Rooker, Danny Hudson, Jena Malone,
Michael Angarano, Luke Wilson, Tom Payne, Jeff Fahey, Will Patton

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