cannes 2024 horizon: an american saga kevin costner movie review movies review

Horizon: An American Saga Is Dune: Part One for Dads

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Photo: Warner Bros.

It’s about an hour into Kevin Costner’s western Horizon: An American Saga when Kevin Costner shows up. He plays Hayes Ellison, a horse trader who arrives in a small town in the Wyoming territory, dictates an awkward letter home, and then promptly winds up in a fight with a man he’s never met, the result of which steers his life in an unexpected direction. Not long after we meet Hayes, the film cuts away to introduce us to another major character, Luke Wilson’s Matthew Van Weyden, the inexperienced leader of a wagon train on the Santa Fe Trail, anxiously trying to keep his rolling community from falling apart in the West Kansas heat. By the time the three-hour film approaches its end, we half-expect to belatedly meet yet more major characters. Horizon is a gorgeous, sprawling, and at times moving blast of old-fashioned storytelling — but for now, it’s half a movie. Maybe even one-quarter of a movie: Addressing the audience at his Cannes premiere, after receiving an extended standing ovation, a clearly emotional Costner yelled, “There’s three more!” Part Two, we know, has already been shot and will be released this fall. Parts Three and Four, it seems, will only be made if audiences come out for Parts One and Two.

Was Costner’s bellow one of triumph or an apology? Maybe a bit of both. Horizon feels like the opening chapters of a grand novel patiently rolling into place, carefully delineating characters and offering telltale glimpses into their lives. It’s rich in period detail and filled with majestic vistas that seem to match the expanse of its story. But this can be a curse, too, at least while the film only exists as this one installment. The power of those big, sweeping, novelistic stories lies in the ways we watch those characters change, in how fate brings them together and pulls them apart. Something of this size needs a shape, and right now, Horizon is basically just a rising line. We meet the characters, and nobody changes. Random bits just drift in out of the air. A couple of familiar faces peek out from one scene or another. We assume all this will pay off one movie from now (or two or three), but at present, everything is just kind of there. At the same time, it would be silly to pretend like the rest of the film doesn’t exist; it clearly does, we just haven’t seen it yet. Horizon: An American Saga is Dune: Part One for dads (and, hi, I’m dads), and that film also seemed to stop just as it got going.

The incompleteness can be a problem in other ways too. The film’s first act features something quite startling to see in 2024: an extended massacre of a riverside settlement in the San Pedro Valley by a group of Apache. Costner ruthlessly orchestrates the bloodshed, showing individual families being slaughtered, and then focuses on one family in particular: the Kittredges, in particular mother Frances (Sienna Miller) and her daughter, Lizzie (Georgia MacPhail), who will become key figures in the rest of the movies. There is some context for the massacre. When the U.S. cavalry belatedly arrives, the first thing Lieutenant Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington) asks the survivors is, “What are you doing here?” In other words, this is not a sanctioned or safe settlement. Elsewhere, in the hills, an Apache chief excoriates the leader of the war party, Pionsenay (Owen Crow Shoe), for what he’s done. “The men are gone. But where they’ve been, thousands will come,” he tells the brash young warrior.

Costner, the man who made Dances With Wolves (which, whatever you may think of it now, introduced much of the world to the plight of the American Indian), isn’t about to let this incident just sit there as his film’s sole animating force. The story of Horizon will obviously show us the echoes of this event, finding its counters in what settlers and soldiers will eventually do to the Native Americans. And this first part does in fact begin to show us some of those grisly reverberations — but it’s still quite a gamble for Costner to open with a sequence like this, leaving so much of his tale’s emotional arc incomplete.

The rampant proliferation of part-one entries in Hollywood has already been discussed endlessly (and it’s even incurred something of a backlash, with the makers of last summer’s Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One retroactively deciding to remove that last part of the title). Sometimes, it’s a case of filmmakers creating franchises on the spot, trying to guarantee audiences will show up for the follow-up. Sometimes, it’s an attempt to save money, fitting multiple movies under one production budget. Me, I blame the noxious influence of television, with its constant need to serialize everything. In most of these cases, however, the films don’t seem to need a “part one” or a “chapter one” or a “book one” slapped on them. They either work on their own or they’re so glacially paced, so overburdened with filler, that all the parts should probably just be edited together into one compact feature.

Horizon — or, at least, this section of Horizon — is a bit different. Its stately pace never feels boring, so it doesn’t feel like it should have been shorter. But it also doesn’t really work on its own. It gears us up for something that never quite comes. It sets up characters we don’t really get to know. It could be a TV series, of course, but it looks so great on the big screen that it really shouldn’t be a TV series. Should Costner have just debuted it as one six-hour movie? Maybe! I’d watch that movie, but I haven’t seen that movie. And it feels impossible to judge this film, because, in some weird way, it doesn’t feel like anything has really happened yet.

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Bilge Ebiri , 2024-05-20 19:52:32

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