Review: Kevin Costner coasts on charisma in 'Horizon: An American Saga'

There's no questioning the commitment that Kevin Costner lavishes on "Horizon."

Review: Kevin Costner coasts on charisma in 'Horizon: An American Saga'
Warner Bros.
June 28, 2024, 4:09 AM

There's no questioning the commitment that writer-director-star Kevin Costner lavishes on "Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1," now riding through theaters at less than full gallop as the first of four epics the "Dances with Wolves" Oscar winner believes will keep audiences saddled up.

At three hours, part one feels less like a movie than three one-hour episodes of a streaming series that rambled off course with no direction home. You've probably heard that Costner gave the heave-ho to his mega-hit TV series, "Yellowstone," mortgaged property and invested $38 million of his own money to roll the dice on his $100 million passion project. All true.

Costner, 69, has completed the second part (due Aug. 16) and started on the third, so there's no telling that a completed "Horizon" won't reach the finish line as something coherent and compelling. But despite a few thrillingly fired-up sequences it's definitely not there yet.

A scene from the movie "Horizon: An American Saga."
Warner Bros.

"Horizon" is a throwback to 1962's "How the West Was Won," a sprawling, all-star horse opera that gave Costner the "feels" as a kid. So here he is detailing a genocidal "manifest destiny," a 19th-century form of U.S. imperialism that claimed white settlers were destined to expand westward, no matter the tragic fate in store for the indigenous people who got there first.

All ragged roads lead toward the settlement of Horizon in Arizona's San Pedro valley. Costner, who wrote the rambling script with Jon Baird, plays Hayes Ellison, a lone gunslinger who's heading west with Marigold (Abbey Lee), a sex worker who's escaping with the child of her landlady Lucy (Jena Malone). Marigold offers Hayes sex as a sleep aid. So there's that.

Surprisingly, Costner doesn't enter the movie for an hour. I guess he's been sleeping or busy setting up characters so numerous you need a scorecard to keep track. Take the settlers on a Montana Territory wagon train, captained by Matthew Van Weyden (a stalwart Luke Wilson), whose Apache protection plan extends to two obnoxious Brit brats (Ella Hunt and Tom Payne).

Actually, the film opens with an Apache massacre that Costner stages with harrowing intensity. After a sweet beginning with Horizon resident Frances Kittredge (a terrific Sienna Miller) dancing with her teen son Nate (Hayes Costner, Kevin Costner's son), the film plunges into bloody attack mode, leaving Frances a widow with a young daughter Lizzie (Georgia MacPhail). What to do? Enter hottie 1st Lt. Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington) to fill the gap for Frances.

Kevin Costner in a scene from the movie "Horizon: An American Saga."
Warner Bros.

As he did with the Sioux in "Dances with Wolves," Costner pays attention, though not nearly enough, to Native Americans, represented by Apache brothers Pionsenay (Owen Crow Shoe) and Taklishim (Tatanka Means), who fight for the right to defend their land.

The film ends with a trailer for "Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 2", cliched business as usual for most TV series to keep us hanging on, which it does just barely, thanks to the sweeping vistas caught by cinematographer J. Michael Muro, the thunderous score by John Debney and Costner's movie-star ease, well-honed in "Bull Durham," "Field of Dreams," "The Untouchables" and "The Bodyguard."

Playing flawed, off-the-grid characters in less popular films, Costner can still spring surprises. See him as an escaped convict in "A Perfect World," a villain in hero's clothing in "No Way Out," a stoner radio jockey in "The Upside of Anger" and a serial killer in "Mr. Brooks."

Still, Costner is coasting on charisma in "Horizon." He brought more depth and feeling to his Emmy-winning role as a feuding backwoods hillbilly in "Hatfields & McCoys." And he was at his very best as rancher tycoon John Dutton in "Yellowstone," a series coming to a premature end.

The Dutton complexity is sorely lacking in "Horizon." Maybe it will show up in the next three American sagas. Costner sure has the acting and directing chops to make it happen. You can feel his love for classic Westerns in every frame. Defiance in the face of snarky early reviews drives Costner to complete the job his way. Can he pull it off? I know I'll be eagerly waiting to find out.