Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Kevin Costner’s “Horizon” Goes West but Gets Nowhere

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Westerns are an inherently political genre, for the obvious reason that they depict (or distort or interrogate) American history. But they are also political in that they show the birth of the polis itself—the institutions of modern urban society, with their laborers, clerks, merchants, teachers, sheriffs, entertainers. Where philosophers from Plato to Rousseau sought to imagine the development of civil society from first principles, the makers of Westerns—John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh—showed it being created from the ground up, by hands-on labor.

Unlike the blank pages awaiting philosophers’ fancies, the American West was already inhabited, and the Indigenous peoples living there had well-developed social orders, so Westerns are, unavoidably, tales of conquest and subjection. Westerns, which emerged around the dawn of the twentieth century—while the westward expansion that they depicted was still going on—have often served to whitewash a bloody past and ease the mainstream conscience. If the genre has a particular bent toward mythology, it’s because this episode of American history admits of no honest telling without shame and dishonor. The Western, at its worst, is a series of convenient lies, but the genre also encompasses works that look frankly at prejudice and at crimes against humanity. In John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956), an Indian-hating warrior goes into self-imposed exile; Robert Aldrich’s “Apache” (1954) dramatizes the heroic struggle for freedom of Geronimo’s subchief, Massai.

Kevin Costner’s directorial career is dominated by Westerns, starting with the film that launched it, “Dances with Wolves” (1990), which was nominated for twelve Oscars and won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director. It’s a mildly revisionist story, with Costner playing a U.S. Army officer who befriends a Sioux tribe and lives among them, actions which make him a traitor in the eyes of the U.S. government. Costner also directed the hearty but conventional 2003 Western “Open Range,” in which he co-stars with Robert Duvall. So Costner is hardly a naïf when it comes to Westerns; he understands the heritage, the context, the risks. But you wouldn’t know it from watching “Horizon: An American Saga—Chapter 1,” his heavy-handed, big-footed return to the genre.

From the start, Costner turns his back on the Western’s historical and foundational functions. Horizon is an outpost in what is now Arizona, and the movie opens in 1859, with three white surveyors staking out the land. But, before anything is built, they’re killed, apparently by Indigenous people nearby (though there’s enough elision in the filming to make one suspect a red herring). Then the movie skips ahead, to 1863, with Horizon now thriving, filled with tents, small houses, and even a dance hall. This temporal leap is an act of great historical chutzpah: it waves away the first years of the Civil War and betrays indifference to the labor by which bare land becomes a town.

Chutzpah is almost an operating principle for this movie, beginning with the production itself. Three hours long, the film is only the first of a projected tetralogy. (The second installment is scheduled for release in August; filming on the third started in May.) It is a passion project of Costner’s, who has partly bankrolled it, putting up thirty-eight million dollars of his own money. (The budget for the first two films is reportedly a hundred million.) Costner conceived of the story nearly forty years ago, as a movie centered on two characters (including the one he plays in this first installment). Now that the narrative has swollen to more than eleven hours, there has been talk of eventually cutting it into a TV series, but he is adamant that “Horizon: An American Saga” is a single movie and belongs on the big screen.

It would be a mistake to write a movie off just because of a director’s grandiosity. Making any big-budget picture involves some degree of hubris, and movie history abounds with projects that have been derided for extravagance or megalomaniacal self-indulgence and ended up being great films, such as Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” or Elaine May’s “Ishtar,” or huge hits, such as George Lucas’s “Star Wars” and James Cameron’s “Titanic.” But the case of “Horizon” is different. For one thing, its commercial fortunes depend on a blithe confidence that Costner’s name is enough to induce viewers to shell out at the box office four times—and, initially, for a story that is avowedly unfinished. What’s more, the inflated production of “Horizon” shows in its aesthetic. The dramatic format seems borrowed from television, with multiple threads jumpily interweaved, to ward off impatience. With so many balls in the air at once, the movie lacks the kind of patient observation that this story demands. (Costner’s two prior Westerns are far more gracefully paced.)

It’s impossible to know, at the end of this first installment, how or whether its story lines will eventually intersect. Horizon’s inhabitants seem to have been lured from the East by handbills touting Edenic splendors. They have been distributed by a man named Pickering, who is selling shares in the town. (He isn’t in this installment, though a closing montage suggests that he’ll feature in the next, played by Giovanni Ribisi; my money is on Pickering to be the story’s arch-villain.) The major inciting event in this film comes in 1863, when Apache fighters attack the resettled Horizon, burning most of the town and killing most of its inhabitants. The action alarms the local tribe’s chief (Gregory Cruz), who recognizes that it will likely provoke white retaliation and bring ruin to his people. He sends his son Pionsenay (Owen Crow Shoe), who led the attack, away, along with a small group of fighters and their families. Survivors of the slaughter include a woman named Frances Kittredge (Sienna Miller) and her young daughter, Lizzie (Georgia MacPhail), who are brought to safety at a U.S. Army post. Frances attracts a lieutenant (Sam Worthington), who is increasingly uneasy about his mission.

The plot line in which Costner appears takes place far from Horizon. He plays a taciturn prospector named Hayes Ellison, who confronts a hotheaded young man intent on revenge after his father was shot by a sex worker; soon, Hayes is helping a different sex worker, Marigold (Abbey Lee), flee across rugged country, together with an abandoned baby. Elsewhere, settlers in a wagon train heading West, to Horizon, realize that they’ve been noticed by Native scouts; as supplies dwindle, the settlers circle the wagons in anticipation of an attack.

Any of these stories would make for a worthy two hours of moviegoing, and, as Costner switches from one strand to another, he sustains suspense even when interest flags. What’s more, he and Jon Baird, who co-wrote the script, carefully plant loose ends, in the form of side characters whose desires, ideas, or resentments are suggestive of dramas to come. There is a farsighted colonel (Danny Huston) whose firm authority is shot through with a tragic sense of foreknowledge; there is Pionsenay’s brother Taklishim (Tatanka Means), a conflicted member of the war party. Several children, such as an Apache boy who speaks English and a white boy whose lust for vengeance is balanced by unexpected principle, point to future revelations and showdowns.

But not one of these characters comes off as anything other than plot-generating machinery, a set of dramatic springs and gears. What humanity they have is provided by the actors, but the tight plotting and narrow function of the characters offer the performers little scope for creative freedom. This failure of characterization is also a failure of ideas and of politics, because none of these people seem tethered to the wider world. The Civil War is largely absent from people’s thoughts. Nobody has much to say about the conflict or the principles at stake, as if Costner were afraid of offending someone, anyone, Southern or Northern, Black or white. In the town of Horizon, too, Costner gives little sense of how politics play out. Drawing dramatic energy from anarchic violence, he barely hints at any incipient framework of legal authority.

It is worth noting that the greatest directors of Westerns were not specialists. Though Ford made dozens of them, he also made dozens of other great movies—about the First World War, rural Ireland, the South Seas, mid-thirties China—that are no less politically incisive. Aldrich, in the mid-fifties, dispelled the noxious myths of whatever subject he turned to: the freelance cool of private eyes, Second World War triumphalism, the dignity of Hollywood itself. And the foremost contemporary director of Westerns, Clint Eastwood, has proved equally politically audacious across crime dramas, thrillers, war films, supernatural mysteries, and movie-world tales. For these filmmakers, political sensibility is inextricable from artistic outlook. A worthwhile Western, like any other film, is the expression of a point of view, and, in “Horizon: An American Saga—Chapter 1,” Costner doesn’t yet display one. Here, he’s a storyteller but nothing more, and therefore much less. ♦

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