Shambala. Avalon. White Castle. There are many tales of protagonists undergoing dangerous journeys in search of rumored paradise, like Caesar’s trek towards an oasis in The War of the Planet of the Apes or Furiosa’s drive towards the idyllic “Green Place” in Mad Max: Fury Road. In the case of Kevin Costner’s Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1, the purported promised land is the town of Horizon, a mysterious possible stronghold in a dangerous territory whose pursuit unifies the film’s distinct storylines as the shared object of its characters’ respective journeys.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Horizon begins in the 1859 San Pedro Valley with a family surveying a plot of land for a new homestead, only to be quickly and ruthlessly dispatched by local Apache warriors. That doesn’t deter the community that soon comes to colonize a nearby stretch of land, and they meet a similar fate. During a community dance, they’re run through by an Apache raid led by the angry, rebellious young warrior Pionsenay (Owne Crow Show). This moment sparks two of the film’s disparate plot threads. One group of survivors, including comely widow Frances (Sienna Miller) and her daughter Lizzie (Georgie MacPhail), join up with the noble Lt. Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington) and his Union Army unit, while another group sets forth separately in hopes of getting bloody revenge for the massacre.

Photo Credit: Richard Foreman

Another tale introduces local sex worker Marigold (Abbey Lee), whose friendship with ‘Ellen’ Harvey (Jena Malone) incidentally puts her in the crosshairs of a dangerous group of violent men (for reasons I won’t spoil). When mysterious horse trader Hayes Ellison (Kevin Costner) enters Marigold’s orbit, he, too, is put in their confrontational course in the film’s most thrilling and suspenseful storyline. Finally, late into the film, we meet a wagon train trekking across the Western landscape, led by Matthew Van Weyden (Luke Wilson) but plagued by internal tension among the various travelers. 

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


Chapter 1 is clearly intended as the set-up for the chapters to follow, developing its storylines with little resolution or connection between them by film’s end, and ending in a rapid-fire parade of snippets from the future installments. Admittedly, it’s a little complicated to review such a sprawling film whose purpose is mainly to introduce the characters and conflicts inhabiting future chapters. The lack of connection between the currently distinct storylines gives the narrative an episodic feel, but while the various stories have potential, they can’t yet be said to have equal impact or development. 

While Costner’s own narrative comes surprisingly late into the story, it’s clearly the strongest so far: Costner’s Hayes Ellison is noble, gruff, and unsurprisingly watchable, Abbey Lee’s Marigold is charming, and the pursuing Sykes brothers feel dangerous (shout out to Jamie Campbell Bower for nailing Caleb’s charismatic psychopathy). The tension amidst the wagon train has loads of dramatic potential, but it arrives in the film’s final hour and doesn’t have a clear dramatic throughline by the time the credits roll. The Union Army sequence similarly has engaging performers (and a lovably sketchy accent by the otherwise great Michael Rooker), but it doesn’t quite accomplish much more than the first hints of a fledgling new romance by Chapter 1’s end. 

Danny Huston and Michael Rooker in Horizon: An American Saga Chapter One
Photo Credit: Richard Foreman

Horizon boasts a number of memorable moments, engaging performances, and fruitful setups for the entries to come, but as a singular entry the long, loose weaving of narrative threads don’t feel balanced among each other or satisfactorily resolved as the credits roll. It has strong worldbuilding, notably aided by skilled production and costume design, though it surprisingly doesn’t take full advantage of the beautiful vistas and scope that Westerns usually showcase. They’re there, sure, but the film spends considerable time in tight shots, indoors, or at night, for a bit of a missed opportunity so far. 


The final consequence of Horizon’s first chapter feeling something less than dramatically paid off is that it necessarily can’t yet feel like it brings something fresh and distinct to the genre. Take, for instance, the initial Apache raid on the settlers’ dance. Horizon actually spends some (though not enough) time in and among the Apache tribe, allowing a view of their complex internal politics that Westerns often miss.

At the same time, it’s unfortunately clear the colonizing community maintains empathetic priority. For example, instead of centering the Tribe’s complicated attempts to survive extermination (the motivation behind the Apache rogue faction’s attack), Horizon first highlights the massacre of the settler community’s women and children, set to a sweeping, melodramatic score and slipping too comfortably into well-trod genre tropes. It’s highly possible that subsequent chapters will develop this and other storylines in novel, less familiar directions, but it’s simply too soon to tell.

Kevin Costner and Jamie Campbell Bower in Horizon: An American Saga Chapter One
Photo Credit: Richard Foreman

Altogether, Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 genuinely feels like a long introduction, for all the good and ill that entails. There’s a lot of promise for future installments, with interesting characters, strong performances, and a lot of possible drama moving forward. On the other hand, as a standalone entry Chapter 1 fails to adequately balance the various plotlines or build them all to satisfying points of exit as they progress towards Chapter 2. The good elements shine like gold specks at the bottom of a cinematic river, and hopefully there’s genuine gold in the hills upstream, but it’s way too early to tell. Fortunately, audiences won’t have to wait long for greater resolution–Chapter 2 drops as soon as August 16th this year. 

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 hits theaters June 28th.

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