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Western fans in good hands with Kevin Costner's 'Horizon'
Warner Bros.

Western fans in good hands with Kevin Costner's 'Horizon'

The first installment of a four-part epic delivers top-notch craftsmanship and timeless thrills.

Kevin Costner broke virtually all the rules with “Horizon: An American Saga.”

The first of a four-part Western opus isn’t catnip to summer audiences craving "Bad Boys" and Amy Poehler’s ode to Joy. That it’s roughly three hours long would seem to be another strike against its commercial prospects.

'This isn’t a John Wayne western, but Costner’s Hayes Ellison evokes some of that plainspoken style and a reluctance to settle matters with steel.

These would seem to be especially important to the film's star, who has sunk a reported $38 million of his own money into the project. Oh, and said star doesn't even appear in the first hour.

None of this matters when you settle into your seat and let the film wash over you. On that all-important scale, “Horizon” is a flawed but fascinating watch, a project steeped in love for old-school Westerns. The saga acknowledges the bruised humanity of the nation’s early settlers but doesn’t downplay their dreams.

Spoiler alert: It’s wise, not woke.

The film’s biggest issue is undeniable. It plays out like the first installment of a prestige TV series. Some subplots seize us from the jump, while others demand more screen time before that’s even possible. And there’s too little connective tissue between the threads, at least initially.

The story opens with death, a precursor to what we’ll see throughout the saga. Apache Indians don’t take kindly to white settlers encroaching on their land in the San Pedro Valley circa 1859. The chilling prologue gives way to a bravura attack sequence Costner the director stages for maximum impact.

The Native American assault is relentless and worthy of a summer blockbuster. It’s also shocking given the glut of revisionist Westerns spotlighting the indigenous culture’s perspective. Heck, Costner himself unofficially jump-started that movement with 1990’s Oscar-winning “Dances with Wolves.”

He shrewdly deploys a similar tactic here, letting us hear from both sides of the battle when the violence ebbs. He doesn’t overplay his hand, trusting audiences to put the pieces together.

From there, we’re off to Montana and Wyoming for more stories tied to the wild West. And, finally, we meet our director/co-writer and star.

He’s Hayes Ellison, a laconic soul who befriends a local prostitute (Abbey Lee) and the toddler she’s chosen to protect. We don’t know much about Hayes, but it’s clear he’s handy with a sidearm and his innate kindness has been tested over the years.

More tests are heading his way.

This isn’t a John Wayne Western, but Costner’s Hayes Ellison evokes some of that plainspoken style and a reluctance to settle matters with steel. There’s a whiff of “Shane” in the character, too.

The weight of the past hangs on him like his drooping mustache, and his morality is neither pure nor out of reach.

Through it all, we see glimpses of Horizon, a flyer promising land for those hungry enough to grab it. It’s the American dream put to paper, but as the Civil War raged, it meant something very different from what it does today.

“Horizon” boasts sterling production values, sweeping vistas befitting the genre, and solid performances. When we first see Luke Wilson, it seems like a casting mistake. He may not be as quirky a choice as brother Owen would be, but he’s still not the first person who comes to mind for a sprawling Western.

Wilson surprises, delivering a nuanced portrait of a leader eager to put out internal fires before a possible Native American incursion.

His character oversees a very odd couple, an effete British duo (Tom Payne, Ella Hunt) who give the project a rare blast of comic relief. It isn’t always successful.

As long as “Horizon” is, the first installment feels like a few sequences got left behind. One example? We watch a tender moment between Sienna Miller’s Frances, a woman who survived the earlier Apache attack, and Sam Worthington’s First Lieutenant Trent Gephart. The actors reminds us what’s at stake in both “Horizon” and the country’s unpaved future.

It’s also a palate cleanser for the violence seen elsewhere. Still, there’s not enough setup to make that connection click.

Far better is a sequence during which a young boy gets the chance to strike back at the Apache tribe that murdered his family.

Connecting the disparate stories is John Debney’s super-sized score, a snug fit for an oater of outsized ambition.

It’s hard to judge “Horizon” in full knowing three more installments await. One thing is clear after part one: We're in good hands with Costner. Few stars better understand what Westerns mean to America.

Editor's note: For Jason Buttrill's review of "Horizon," see here.

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Christian Toto

Christian Toto

Christian Toto is the founder of and the host of “The Hollywood in Toto Podcast.”