Kevin Costner’s Horizon Is as Bad as You’ve Heard

Supposedly the first of four films, Kevin Costner’s dull and messy Western throwback, Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1, is almost certainly dead on arrival.

The bloated and bloviating three-hour epic is only the first of four Horizon movies that Kevin Costner plans to foist upon us. (New Line Cinema)

I finally went to see Kevin Costner’s flop Western, Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1. Not because I wanted to see Horizon — at this point, does anybody? — but because morbid curiosity drove me on. If you read enough annihilating reviews and gleefully slagging commentary, sometimes the burning question becomes, “How abysmal is it, really?”

Horizon is the kind of movie that makes you contemplate with awe the people who read the script and claimed to like it; who acted in it thinking they were going to come across well, without realizing, “Here is where I earn my Razzie nomination”; who watched the final cut of this barely formed slurry of a film and said, “Yeah, this movie is ready to show to a paying public.”

But the most jaw-dropping aspect of the whole experience is learning that this bloated and bloviating three-hour epic is only the first of four Horizon movies that Costner is planning to foist upon us. He’ll never do it! Surely we’ll unite as a society, despite our differences, to prevent this outrage!

Writer Stephen King might claim we should be grateful for any original media in an IP world of sequels, reboots, and exhausted franchises, but I say we still have a right to call a turd a turd.

Anyway, Horizon interweaves many stories about settlers surging westward in a massive land grab partly catalyzed by handbills touting the glories of fantasy communities like Horizon. And if I had to watch one more shot of a character gaze longingly at that damn handbill, I was about to torch the theater.

These settlers encounter increasingly violent resistance from the indigenous peoples living on the land. In the actual drab and remote Arizona settlement called Horizon, there are just enough people to raise an old-time, fiddle-playing, foot-stomping dance at a roughhewn, newly raised building, as celebrated in John Ford’s Westerns, before an Apache raid decimates the place. The cavalry officer Lt Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington) tells the survivors they have to move to a more populated area where the US Army can offer some reliable protection, or else take their chances.

Costner, cowriting with Jon Baird, has set up several other storylines ranging from the Southwest to the northwestern states like Wyoming and Montana. One involves a wagon train of pioneers led by cranky trail boss Matthew Van Weyden (Luke Wilson). And then there’s a taciturn prospector named Hayes Ellison (Costner), who arrives at a muddy degenerate hamlet and gets involved with a flirtatious prostitute named Marigold (Abbey Lee). She’s minding a small boy for another sex worker named Lucy “Ellen” Harvey (Jena Malone), who’s run afoul of one of those feral, fur-wearing barbarian clans who always represent the downside of frontier liberty in classic Westerns like My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Big Country (1958). Soon Ellison, Marigold, and the boy are on the run through rugged territory, pursued by gunslinging degenerates in wolf hides.

There are some indigenous characters identified as White Mountain Apache members, led by the peaceable Tuaheseh (Gregory Cruz) facing off against his militant son, Pionsenay (Owen Crow Shoe), who headed up the massacre at Horizon. They have a big scene arguing two sides of the widening tribal schism. It’s that familiar plotline that’s been done in several old Westerns like Broken Arrow (1950), The Battle at Apache Pass (1952), Conquest of Cochise (1953), and Apache (1954), though it generally involves two chiefs, Geronimo vs. Cochise, arguing about the decision to either engage in an all-out war against whites or adopt a conciliatory approach based on the hopelessness of stopping the tide of settlers.

And as in Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990), there’s a troubled cavalry officer who concerns himself with the Native Americans being violently displaced by whites. When, in Horizon, Lt Gephardt asks about “indigenous” concerns, as if that were an ordinary term of discourse in the US Army of the time, it’s an awkwardly ahistorical moment that stops the whole lumbering movie in a moment of acute embarrassment.

These gestures give Costner plausible deniability about his old-fashioned triumphalist Western, indicating he’s being more sensitive to the fraught history of the West in terms of the Native American experience. His narrative features two massacres, for example — the Apaches who wipe out the Horizon settlement and the revenge massacre led by white survivors. The revenge massacre shows understandably anguished survivors being persuaded toward greater evil when they can’t locate the tribe they’re after, so they settle on a random tribe to attack, but only once the warriors leave and it’s just women and children left in the camp. And the taking of scalps from the corpses, which pay a generous bounty, becomes one of the main motivating factors.

But even with all these gestures taken together, Costner’s supposed evenhandedness just doesn’t hold water. He wants to have it all ways, and it can’t be done. Critic Armond White, writing for the conservative National Review, sneers that the film represents Costner’s shaky RINO political stance, with “the skepticism about America’s founding combined with the optimism that made both Dances with Wolves and his ecological Third World fantasy Rapa Nui into fatuous hippie visions of global conquest.”

It’s incredible how stupidly celebratory of the Western genre Horizon’s whole elegiac shooting style is. There’s so much worshipful footage of white men standing tall among mesas and raising guns symbolic of conquest against sunset horizons and riding fast horses against Apaches. Like Jerry Seinfeld, Costner clearly likes a world-dominating “real man.”

If you enjoy aspects of old Westerns, in spite of their generally nightmarish Manifest Destiny ideology, you’ll recognize amid Costner’s nervous and unconvincing feints just how much he owes to traditionalist Western filmmaker John Ford. Ford’s later questioning of his own beliefs, instigated by the civil rights movement, found its way into his later, darker, more troubling film-noir-ish Westerns, and no doubt Costner thinks he’s treading the same fraught, disturbing territory. But somehow the disturbance doesn’t come across. Neither does Ford’s excellent handling of bold narrative, his exciting, inventive action, or his generally riveting cinematography and editing. Those qualities writer-director-producer-star Kevin Costner cannot seem to get a handle on.

Even Ford at his most excessively old-fashioned and sentimental would be shocked by how far Costner takes certain Ford tendencies, like demonstrating how rough frontier men worship delicate ladies as the pinnacle of civilization, while lower-class women and women of color who are sex workers or serve drinks in saloons are insulted, kicked around for laughs, and thrown into horse troughs. Of the white survivors of the Apache massacre at Horizon in Costner’s film, for example, there’s a refined blonde woman named Frances Kittredge (Sienna Miller) and her even blonder teenage daughter Lizzie (Georgia MacPhail), and they’re treated with slack-jawed, pop-eyed reverence by all the men in the cavalry.

Costner’s Horizon is a slack, boring, sickening mess of a film, every bit as bad as you’ve heard, and even more moronically regressive than you might’ve imagined. But at least there’s no need for you to see it, since all the reviews and commentary by the honestly repulsed are representing it accurately. Stay away, so that even if a Horizon – Chapter 2 is destined to pollute our screens, we might at least avoid the fate of chapters three and four.