The Movie Waffler New Release Review - HORIZON: AN AMERICAN SAGA - CHAPTER ONE | The Movie Waffler


Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter One review
Three storylines play out in America's Old West.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Kevin Costner

Starring: Kevin Costner, Abbey Lee, Jena Malone, Sienna Miller, Sam Worthington, Michael Rooker, Jamie Campbell Bower, Jeff Fahey, Ella Hunt

Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter One poster

Once in a while a critic will have the cheek to publish a review despite not having seen a movie in its entirety. "I've seen this a hundred times before," is how they inevitably defend themselves when they're rightly attacked for such a lack of professionalism and respect for the medium. With Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter OneKevin Costner has forced all of his new film's reviewers into the role of the unprofessional critic who forms an opinion despite having only seen half a movie, or in this case maybe only a third, or even a quarter. Costner's project is ambitiously spread across four films, with three reportedly already shot and two guaranteed a release at time of writing. Costner calls these movies "Chapters," but I don't think he really understands what a chapter is. A "chapter" signifies a distinct part of a story, with its own beginning, middle and end. Horizon's Chapter One has no discernible beginning or end, but it sure has a whole lot of middle. It begins at a point that will have you wondering if the projectionist has gotten the reels mixed up, and it ends on such a random note that when a highlight reel of the second chapter begins unspooling it takes a minute to realise the first film is over.

In terms of editing, Horizon is a confusing mess, structured in a way that suggests a wall of Costner's mansion was once covered in post-it notes that were removed and put back in random order by his cleaning lady. There are three distinct storylines here and at this point it's impossible to tell if they're set to intersect at some narrative junction in a subsequent chapter. If not, you have to wonder why Costner didn't just make three separate films. I suspect the answer is that it was easier for Costner to get one movie off the ground and split it into four chapters than to forge ahead with three individual movies. The haphazard manner in which Costner flips back and forth between these three plot strands left me wondering if he was doing something similar to Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk with its three distinct timelines, but I came to the conclusion that isn't the case. That the drama ranges from as far north as snowy Wyoming to as far south as the New Mexico plains, and thus cuts between snowfall and parched desert, doesn't help make things any easier. You could tell me Chapter One plays out over a period of either a month or five years and I wouldn't know which to believe. There are transitions that are crying out for intertitles explaining how much time has passed, and their odd absence might suggest Costner is being purposely obfuscating, perhaps setting us up for a twist like that of TV's Westworld where it will turn out the three plotlines were actually playing out in three separate time periods. Who knows? it certainly doesn't make my job here any easier, that's for sure.

Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter One review

The story of the American West is a tale of deluded masses exploited by a ruthless few, and the protagonists of westerns tend to be the men who tried to forge a life between both parties. That's what Costner gives us across his three plotlines here, which feature naive settlers, cut-throat killers, stoic cavalry officers, Apaches forced to take brutal action against the invaders of their land, and one man just trying to keep his head down and avoid the arrows and bullets.

The first plotline sees widowed settler Frances (Sienna Miller) and her young daughter Elizabeth (Georgia MacPhail) taken in by a US cavalry outpost when her fellow settlers pay the price for pitching up on Apache land. Despite having literally just lost her husband in a violent manner that you assume would leave a woman emotionally scarred for life, Frances shows remarkable fortitude and begins immediately setting her sights on handsome officer Trent (Sam Worthington). This segment sees Costner channel the Cavalry movies of John Ford, with Worthington and Miller occupying the exact sort of roles that might have been filled by John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, but it's missing the sexually tense conflict that Ford brought to his film's romantic subplots, and the watchable Miller struggles to generate any chemistry with the stiff Worthington. If there are a further three movies to come, why is Costner in such a rush to get these two people together? More convincing is Michael Rooker in the Victor McLaglen role of the gruff old Irish cavalryman with a heart of gold. His terrible Oirish accent only endears him all the more to those western fans who understand what he's doing with this role. That said, a cynical modern audience will likely guffaw at the sentimentality here, especially a scene involving Elizabeth cutting the roses from a blanket as a makeshift gift for departing soldiers. But for me, the very casting against type of Rooker sold this moment. Who knew Henry Lee Lucas was such a big softie?

Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter One review

This plotline branches off to its own subplot as some of the angry survivors of the Apache massacre hire a group of bounty hunters led by the legendary Jeff Fahey as a character so awful he makes his Psycho III sleazebag seem like a fine young man by comparison. Like Wayne in The Searchers, Fahey takes over his assignment and embarks on a bloody quest fuelled by racist hatred. One of the film's more unsettling scenes sees him place a pistol in the hands of a young white boy and attempt to coax the kid into shooting an Apache accompanied by his own child. If the movie's opening massacre of white settlers suggests a traditionally negative portrayal of the Apache, Costner certainly balances things by how he depicts the brutality of his film's white men. The Apache get their own subplot too, centred around a philosophical disagreement between a chief and his rebellious son (Owen Crow Shoe) over how to deal with the threat of the white man.

The second plotline sees Costner put himself front and centre in a role not unlike the one he played in his previous western, the great Open Range. He plays Hayes, a drifter who wanders from town to town taking up jobs like The Fugitive's Richard Kimble. and as was so often the case with Kimble, he finds trouble in the form of a woman, small town hooker Marigold (Abbey Lee). Marigold's connection to a woman (Jena Malone) on the run from the brothers of her (possibly abusive?) husband leads Hayes to reluctantly draw his gun once more and hit the hills with Marigold. The bickering pair form a duo not unlike Clint Eastwood and Shirley Maclaine in Don Siegel's Two Mules for Sister Sara, and the plotline draws inspiration from the revisionist and spaghetti westerns of the '60s and '70s. There's a wonderful nod to Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence in the form of Caleb (Jamie Campbell Bower), an unhinged psychopath whose look is clearly modelled on Klaus Kinski. An extended scene that sees Caleb harass and provoke Hayes is the movie's highlight, the tension building with every muddy footstep as they trudge towards their fate, and Bower is terrifyingly sleazy in the role. The part of Hayes fits Costner like a well broken-in pair of assless chaps. The point when Hayes' mask of civilisation drops and he begins gunsplainin' how things really work in the West and how shit's gonna go down is the point when the movie really kicks in, and those of us who put our faith in Costner are truly rewarded.

Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter One review

The final plotline follows a wagon trail of settlers guided by hired gun Matthew (Luke Wilson), a grizzled military veteran who has little time for anyone who might hold him up. This puts him in conflict with Hugh (Tom Payne) and Juliette (Ella Hunt), a pair of young English toffs who seem to be spending what appears to be a gap year taking in the sights of the wild west, what ho. If Worthington was Ford's John Wayne, Wilson is Howard Hawks' Wayne, and if you're familiar with Hawks you'll have a sneaky suspicion that Matthew and Juliette's disdain for one another disguises a buried lust that will no doubt blossom in future chapters. A pair of creepy Scandinavians in Matthew's employ are set up as potential villains as they set their beady eyes on Juliette's perfumed soft skin. Introduced a full two hours into the running time, this plotline is the one that makes the least amount of narrative headway, but there's enough to suggest it will reap rewards down the line.

Horizon will likely hold as much appeal for a 21st century audience as a Bix Beiderbecke comeback tour. An awful lot of people don't like Costner (they're idiots), and an even larger group hate westerns (they're even bigger fools). If you don't like westerns or Costner, this will prove a torturous experience, and you'll know how I feel sitting through a Marvel movie. This is a movie for old souls, for those of us who like nothing more than to plonk down on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon and watch what your dad would have referred to as "a good cowboy movie." Horizon is a bespoke Sunday afternoon oater, one that's long and rambling enough that you won't miss too much plot if you succumb to a roast beef coma for 20 minutes, but with enough loud gunshots to jolt you awake when the yarn truly begins to let rip. Costner is working in a genre he clearly adores here, and he's not afraid to risk alienating modern audiences by leaning into some old-fashioned sentimentality; he practically loads a six-shooter and places it in the hands of the cynic. He's the old gunfighter whose reflexes may not be as quick as they once were, but he's willing to risk getting shot down like a dog in the street. Like the aging bandits of The Wild Bunch, he's got nothing to lose at this point. When Costner says "Let's go!" most will reply "No thanks," but some of us will ask "Why not?" If this is the last stand of this sort of epic American filmmaking, I'm all too happy to go down in its hail of bullets. Regardless of where this trail leads, it was a pleasure to ride alongside ol' Kev once more. I await the next chapter with the eager and nervous anticipation of a desperado waiting for a train.

Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter One is in UK/ROI cinemas from June 28th.

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