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Review of “An American Saga, Chapter 1” – Kevin Costner’s sprawling western has its weaknesses, but is still great

Horizon: An American Saga is the first part of Kevin Costner’s four-part Western epic, a quartet that the filmmaker and star hope to complete. I really enjoyed the sprawling three-hour film, although it has some problems that I think Costner should have avoided in his opening salvo, which needed to go big with audiences and critics and failed on both counts.

The film currently has a pretty disheartening 40% on Rotten Tomatoes (69% with audiences) and looks like a box office flop. The film probably would have been better – or at least more accessible and engaging – if it had been shorter and had at least one less plot thread.

As it is, the three-hour film is a loosely put-together series of three separate films that barely connect to form a coherent whole. One of them doesn’t appear until about two-thirds of the way through the film – a covered wagon story centered around Luke Wilson’s character Matthew Van Weyden. I wish Costner had saved it for Chapter 2 – not because it’s bad, but because it feels like a distraction from the other two main stories.

The first of these takes place in the young settlement of Horizon, which was built on the banks of a river in Apache country. The natives are angry at the white settlers who are taking away their land and driving away the game. A large part of the early part of the film is about a brutal attack by the Apaches on the settlers.

Then the story splits into two parts: some of our main characters go to a nearby military base, others set off with bounty hunters to seek revenge – and to capture Indian scalps. Frances Kittredge (Sienna Miller) and her daughter Elizabeth (Georgia MacPhail) are brought to safety by Sergeant Thomas Riordan (Michael Rooker) and Lieutenant Trent Gephart (Sam Worthington). The young Russell Ganz (Etienne Kellici) sets off with the bounty hunters.

A large part of the plot also revolves around the Apaches themselves. The young, warlike Pionsenay (Owen Crow Shoe) is determined to kill the settlers and drive them away against his father’s wishes. Although the Native Americans are treated with sensitivity and respect in the film, they still play a relatively minor role compared to the white settlers.

A second main storyline revolves around a woman calling herself Ellen (Jena Malone) who escapes her abusive husband and takes her child from Montana Territory to Wyoming Territory. This is where Kevin Costner’s character, a horse dealer named Hayes Ellison, comes in, as does Marigold (Abbey Lee), a prostitute who becomes embroiled in the ensuing violence when Ellen’s pursuers catch up with her and her young son.

These are the Sykes brothers, Caleb (Jamie Campbell Bower, who you may know as Vecna ​​from Stranger Things) and his older, bigger brother Junior (Jon Beavers).

I won’t go into any of these main storylines in detail, but there was enough material between the two to fill an entire movie without adding a covered wagon train and a third cast of characters to keep track of as they travel west. Since none of the three stories converge, and all end without real closure, the film feels less like a self-contained film and more like an introduction – or the first three episodes of a miniseries.

The most bizarre thing about it, however, is the ending. Instead of ending like a normal movie, it goes straight into an extended montage – basically a trailer – of what comes in Chapter 2. There’s nothing to indicate it. There’s no “ending” to let us know this movie is over. Even though I knew this was the first of four films, I was a little confused. Were those shots a montage showing us what happens between this film and the next? Was that a trailer? I’m sure if I went into it unprepared and not well-informed, I would be completely baffled. A strange choice, for sure.

Still, I really enjoyed most of the film. It’s great, for one thing. I wish I could have seen it on a bigger screen. I’d love to see it on an IMAX screen, although I don’t think it was released on IMAX. Cinematographer J. Michael Muro – who worked with Costner on his previous western, Open range—does an incredible job of capturing the beauty and grandeur of the American Southwest. The whole thing was shot in my backyard (I live in Northern Arizona and most of the filming took place in Southern Utah) and I loved seeing the canyons and mesas, the mountainsides covered in golden aspen groves. The score by John Debney is a great reminder of classic westerns and while it’s not the most memorable, it captures the same overwhelming feeling of Americana.

It’s not a perfect film, and the pacing and editing can be a little jarring at times, with time jumps that leave out too much, and certain stories being rushed because even in three hours there’s just too much going on, too many characters, and too many different stories to keep track of, let alone develop each plot thread in the way you’d expect in a western, or any film for that matter. I think Costner made a pretty big mistake in not tightening the film up and coming out with something shorter and more structured, because I think the length and pacing will turn a lot of people off (I personally never got bored, but I bet a lot of people will).

I found the series exciting, romantic, sometimes even poetic and surprisingly humorous. It’s just chaotic and I think it would be better suited as a 12-part premium TV series. I’m glad that’s not the case, simply because I’m happy to be able to see it in the cinema.

The film has a great sense of place – with its sweeping vistas and unique locations – but it has a terrible sense of time. That, and the fact that nothing is resolved and the characters’ paths never cross, makes it feel very incomplete. And that’s OK, it’s incomplete, but I think as an opening salvo, Costner and his collaborators should have hit the mark.

Costner has spent $38 million of his own money (so far) on this project. I really hope he can raise enough money to complete all four films. Chapter 2 hits theaters this August and this reviewer will be at the premiere.

Check out my video review below:

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