Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Kevin Costner’s Western has its virtues


  In a perceptive article in Variety, critic Owen Gleiberman assessed the lackluster opening weekend of Kevin Costner's Horizon: An American Saga -- Chapter 1,  $11 million for a three-hour Western that cost $100 million to make. Chapter 1 is only the first part of what Costner conceives of as a four-part movie. Chapter 2 releases in August.
     Not a fan of the movie, Gleiberman likened Horizon to fare we might see on TV, calling it  "the seedbed for a miniseries." Although he admired Costner's courage and commitment (the actor/director spent a reported $38 million of his own money on the production), Gleiberman went on to say that the movie teaches the following lesson:
       "Don't turn movies into television."
       Initial box office returns appear to be proving Gleiberman right. 
       But Costner's gamble on the form was interesting and perhaps justified. Audiences, after all, have grown accustomed to watching lengthy novelistic series on small screens; it's reasonable to think they might embrace the form if it were successfully transposed to the big screen.
        Or maybe not. Most miniseries are presented in digestible one-hour segments. Pause buttons allow for bathroom breaks, and concessions are no further away than the refrigerator.
         So, a quick Q&A on Horizons.
         Q. Did it deserve to be widely panned, as it was after premiering at last May's Cannes Film Festival?
          A. No. We've all seen plenty of catastrophes on the big screen. Horizons isn't one of them.
          Q. Are some of the criticisms of the movie justifiable?
          A. Of course.
          Q. Is Horizon a commercial folly -- considering cost and possible returns?
          A. Not my concern.
          Q. Can you summarize your reaction?
           A. Horizon held my interest, kept me from looking at my watch, and included enough tension to build a series of mostly involving mini-dramas.
         Beyond that, Horizon proves adventurous -- albeit not always in expected ways.
      The movie, or more accurately, its form tends toward abstraction. I don't mean to suggest that those who see the movie won't be watching gritty characters who operate in realistic settings. Nothing about Horizon feels avant-garde. 
       I'm talking about the way Costner breaks his Western opus into chunks. Presumably, upon the movie's completion, all these fragments will cohere in ways that justify the "American Saga" part of the movie's title. Perhaps we'll emerge with a comprehensive picture of the forces that helped shape the American West with all its rawness, fiber, decency, and deceit.
      I agree with those who've pointed out that it's difficult to watch Horizon without thinking about Costner's treatment of Native Americans. He did, after all, direct Dances With Wolves, widely hailed for recognizing a Native American perspective.
      One of Costner's most gruesome scenes occurs early and involves Apaches. A band of warriors attack a settlement, ravaging those they view as invaders of their land.
      Although the movie's Apache attack could have been lifted from an older, less sensitive era of moviemaking, Costner -- who wrote the screenplay with Jon Baird -- adds nuance by including a scene in which an aging chief warns the Apache warrior (Owen Crow Shoe) who led the assault that he's fighting a losing battle. 
    A later raid on a peaceful Native American village provides an example of bloody white brutality: Greedy marauders collect scalps for money.
    The movie's structure might be called partially successful. Like clumsy couples on a dance floor, the episodes in Horizon sometimes bump abruptly into one another. Some episodes are better (and more compelling) than others, and I sometimes forgot characters by the time they reappeared.
      It's also possible that the movie has been overpopulated with characters. A mother (Sienna Miller) and her daughter (Georgia MacPhail) survive the early-picture Apache attack. Soldiers (Danny Huston and Sam Worthington) help depict the cavalry as  incapable of protecting so much open terrain. 
      After roughly an hour, Costner appears as Hayes Ellison, and the movie takes on a more conventional Western tone. A hard-bitten horse trader, Ellison kills the brother of an outlaw who's then intent on revenge. In the process, Ellison becomes the protector of a flirtatious prostitute (Abbey Lee) who has taken charge of another woman's two-year-old boy.
     That's a lot for one movie, and I haven't even mentioned Matthew Van Meyden (Luke Wilson), the leader of a wagon train that becomes another source of small dramas, one involving a tender-foot Brit and his wife.
      But the overriding theme seems to be the settlement of the West, which the movie sees less as a matter of cowboy grit or settler pluck than as a wave of history breaking across the land, leaving plenty of carnage in its wake. 
     When the movie opens in 1859, a nameless white man and his assistant are seen surveying a remote patch of land. Two Native Americans observe, and a point is made in schematic form: The untamed West is about to be carved into discreet chunks of property. 
      I suppose we should be uneasy about judging a movie that has yet to finish. It's also possible that "good" -- how I'd describe Chapter 1 -- might not be enough for a movie with so much epic ambition.
      Still, in my view, Costner does more than enough to get us to the next chapter. Horizon gives us a version of the West that stems from Costner's knowledge of the genre. The movie often matches the seriousness of its intentions, and Costner doesn't indulge in mythologizing romanticism or cynical deconstruction. The movie acquires its forward motion from the broadness of its sweep.
      I hope the remaining chapters of Horizon  -- unlike this installment -- will be made available to critics in every market before their release. Chapter 1 was not screened for critics in my city.
    So to get back to where we started... Sure, the opening weekend was far from glorious, but it's possible that by the time he's done, Costner will have made a movie that will look quite different.
     What some now see as a misbegotten labor of love may, in time, be viewed as a laudable achievement. After the first helping, Costner left me rooting for the latter.

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