Kevin Costner’s new Western is a baffling disaster

(Image credit: Courtesy the Cannes Film Festival)

(Credit: Courtesy the Cannes Film Festival)

The first film in the actor-director’s planned four-part passion project is baffling – like a three-hour pilot episode for a TV show, with half-formed characters and no discernible structure.

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When is a film not a film? When it is Kevin Costner’s would-be epic Western, Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1, which has premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

It does resemble a film in certain respects. It’s got a host of good-looking actors in nicely tailored costumes. It’s got snowy mountains and desert rock formations. It’s even got some shoot-outs and horseback chases. Costner has directed two previous Westerns, Dances with Wolves and Open Range, and his latest one confirms that he knows a thing or two about the genre. If you watched a few clips of it, you might assume that it was a solid, traditional Western – one of those old-fashioned, lavishly scored cowboys-and-indians yarns. But a film – certainly a Western – needs to have a plot, a bit of credible characterisation, and a structure that preferably includes a beginning, middle and end. Horizon doesn’t have any of those.

To some extent, this was only to be expected. Horizon is financed, produced, directed, and co-written by Costner, who has been saying for years that it wouldn’t be one film. Chapter 1 will be released in cinemas in June, followed by Chapter 2 in August. There is also talk of a Chapter 3 and a Chapter 4 still to come. There’s nothing too unusual about that. In recent Hollywood history, Quentin Tarantino split Kill Bill in half, and both the Harry Potter and the Hunger Games series finished with two-parters.

Countless superhero and fantasy blockbusters have also made it clear that they are laying the groundwork for later instalments. But the deal offered to viewers in these instances is that each part would be satisfying in its own right, even if it didn’t stand completely alone. Horizon: Chapter 1 reneges on that deal. Costner simply hasn’t shaped the material into any kind of distinct entity. The various storylines barely get started before he presses the pause button. It’s like the tantalising pilot episode of a television series – but a pilot episode that drags on and on for three hours.

The “film” opens with a handful of settlers measuring plots of land in Arizona’s San Pedro Valley in 1859 so that they can build their houses by the river. Apache warriors soon put paid to that idea, but four years later a small township is taking root in the valley, anyway, which prompts another brutal and bloody Apache raid. One of the only survivors of this distressing sequence is a beautiful widow (Sienna Miller) who is then sheltered by a square-jawed army lieutenant (Sam Worthington).

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Another strand sees a gang of bounty-hunters going in search of the Apaches who killed the settlers, while the Apaches themselves debate whether to keep up their attacks. Yet another strand, which has no connection to the others, has a wagon train being led through western Kansas by Luke Wilson’s tough-but-fair troubleshooter; nothing happens in this strand whatsoever. And, after an hour, Costner’s own character moseys into view in Wyoming Territory. He’s a noble, laconic gunslinger who protects a sex worker (Abbey Lee) and a boy in her care who are being pursued by vengeful villains. Again, this storyline does not intersect with the others at any point.

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1

Director: Kevin Costner

Cast: Kevin Costner, Sienna Miller, Sam Worthington, Abbey Lee, Luke Wilson

Run time: 3hr 01m

The most obvious problem with Horizon, then, is that the strands aren’t tied together, but even taken individually, each section is dull and plodding, and full of stultifyingly slow dialogue scenes that spell out the issues but do nothing to establish the characters as human beings. Towards the end, for instance, the widow declares her love for the lieutenant, but, despite the numbing running time, we are shown barely a glimmer of romance between them beforehand, or any sign that the widow is upset about her husband’s death. Several other key relationships seem to be missing important components, too.

How can Horizon be so incoherent? Why are the characters so half-formed and the historical context so fuzzy? The terrifying thought is that Costner had to throw out some vital material when he was editing this three-hour slog, and he’s got a director’s cut on the horizon which is even longer.

★☆☆☆☆

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 is released in US and UK cinemas on 28 June.

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