Scale, sweep, or schadenfreude; whatever you might be seeking in the films of Kevin Costner, you tend to walk away with the vistas. Think of the golden plains and stampeding buffalo of his directorial debut Dances with Wolves; or the jaw-dropping aerial shot of scavengers circling the atoll in Waterworld (a film ostensibly directed by Kevin Reynolds, though Costner had other ideas); and lest we forget The Postman, a work even the most harebrained viewers haven’t found the energy to reappraise, which still left you with an image of The Sound of Music projected onto a quarry wall, not to mention that statue of himself constructed for the film’s whacky finale. For better or worse, they aren’t easily forgotten.

The multi-hyphenate makes his long-awaited return to the director’s chair with Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1, a classic western told through the unhurried framework of a limited series and a vision as wide as the open sky. It’s the first of a proposed four-part series. Two have been shot, Costner personally bankrolling a portion to the tune of $38 million; the others are being embarked on shortly as Costner attempts to secure additional financing. To make it work, the director apparently remortgaged four of his houses (“I want to leave them to my children,” he said this week after the film premiered in Cannes, “but my children will have to live their own lives”), which probably says as much about Costner’s devotion to the medium, and his particular brand of American myth-making, as it does about the impossibility of getting a film like this, which he first proposed in 1988, off the ground.

Just last week at the very same festival, Francis Ford Coppola unveiled Megalopolis, his own decades-in-the-making, self-financed dream project. Distributors who monitor such things will be pleased to note that Horizon is by far the easier sell (even considering that Costner spreads his drama out, leaving no safeguard resolution in place for the possibility that the projects fails before later installments can be completed). There are micro-arcs here and there as well as some astonishing set pieces, but Chapter 1 is mainly focused on setting the pieces in place and putting the wheels of narrative in motion. There are, by my count, no few than five competing storylines in Horizon and they are assembled with the syntax of television––when Costner cuts between them it rings less as “and then…” but more like a “meanwhile...”

The series’ key inciting event is an Apache raid on a settler village which sets three plots in motion: a romance between single mother Frances (Sienna Miller) and First Lt. Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington); an intriguing revenge arc involving an orphaned boy, Russel (Etienne Kellici), and a mercenary posse (led by Lost‘s Jeff Fahey) hunting Native Americans for profit; and another focused on the Native American tribe, where a hot-headed warrior has grown tired of his fathers’ appeasement. Meanwhile, in a snowier part of the world, there is a whole other movie going on: this one focuses on Hayes Ellison (Costner), an old gunslinger, and Marigold (Abbey Lee), the h-word with the heart of gold, who find themselves on the wrong side of the notorious Sykes Brothers (Jon Beavers and Jamie Campbell Bower). Lastly––at least for now––there is a handsome wagon trail led by Matthew Van Weyden (Luke Wilson), who may struggle to keep the peace between a dandy British couple and the more rough-edged members of his collective. It is, you might have guessed, quite a lot to take in.

Everything that emerged in the lead-up to Horizon––the project’s scale, its runtime (181 minutes), the colon and hyphen in its title––has been pointing to one word; but calling something “epic” has less to do with quantity than some movies would like us to think. In the most sweeping sequences of Dances with Wolves, Costner left the character all alone on the plains, dwarfed by the landscape and increasingly aware of his own place in it. Horizon, by contrast, seldom takes that kind of time to think. There’s a distinct lack here, too, of cinematic urgency, the sense that, regardless of length, there is somewhere the film needs to get to. The resulting feeling of watching Horizon will be familiar to anyone who’s ever binged a prestige show; but if that is a snag the viewer’s willing to overcome, Costner leaves plenty to enjoy.

That Costner’s belief in this kind of cinema has held firm after two decades of absence behind the camera is nothing if not endearing, and speaks to an uncynical love for the big-screen experience that is all too rare these days. His director’s approach can be blinkered, to say the least––in spite of some perfunctory scenes, this is very much a story of white, Christian perseverance––but it’s also appealingly sincere in what it’s trying to do. Costner hasn’t forgotten where to point a camera, and outside all the table-setting, Horizon has moments designed to astonish. (The beginning raid, for one, culminates in a breathless nighttime chase that wouldn’t have looked entirely out of place in Furiosa.) An on-location shoot (Appalachian-looking mountains here; a valley in Southern Utah there) grants even the film’s smaller moments a kind of sweep and grandeur to which we’ve grown unaccustomed. That John Debney’s score rises and falls exactly where you’d expect it to takes little away from its persuasive powers. And Costner saves his craziest choice for last: a super-cut of footage from what appears to be Chapter 2 played not after, but before the credits roll. By that stage, you might not need convincing.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival and opens June 28.

Grade: B+

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