Photography: Richard Foreman/Warner Bros.

YOU HAVE TO respect Kevin Costner’s loyalty to the old-fashioned western. Since the earliest days of his career in Hollywood, the actor and director has done well by the genre (SilveradoWyatt EarpOpen Range), and the genre has done well by him in return. But watching Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1, the opening instalment of a planned four-part cycle, you can’t help but wonder if his loyalty has turned into folly. After all, Costner has already sunk over $56 million (AUD) of his own money into the frontier epic. And it’s not as if audiences in 2024 are lining up outside multiplexes waving signs for more westerns. If I were his accountant, I’m not sure that I’d advise him to keep plowing ahead with this passion project.

Horizon is as beautifully made and emotionally poignant as you’d expect from the Oscar-winning director of Dances with Wolves. And while it clocks in at a hardly-svelte three hours (actually three hours and one minute), it never feels laggy or boring. However, it is confusing, heavy-handed, and far too sprawling. Costner seems to have decided to make his version of a classic John Ford–in–Monument Valley oater, but he lacks Ford’s narrative discipline. In fact, the biggest flaw of Horizon is that it feels like ten pounds of story jammed into a five-pound bag. It has a massive cast of characters, a dizzying number of locations, and enough meandering plot lines to fill the first five seasons of a TV show. Which turns out to be exactly what Horizon feels like: the overstuffed pilot for a decades-spanning television series. Yellowstone minus the Dutton clan.

The saga — and it really is a saga — kicks off in the San Pedro Valley in 1859, two years before the beginning of the Civil War. Small groups of stoic settlers have recently arrived from back east and are surveying the banks of a river where they plan to build new homes and new lives. They’ve been lured there by a flyer promising peace, prosperity, and wide-open spaces in a new paradise called Horizon. But Horizon isn’t just a place on a dusty map; it’s a state of mind — a false Eden that can vanish in a split second, as raiding Apaches burn their homes to the ground. Not that that will stop the American dream of manifest destiny. As a world-weary outpost colonel played by Danny Huston says, the wagons will just keep coming, no matter how many attacks there are.

Meanwhile, in the snowy Montana Territory, Sienna Miller’s Frances Kittredge and her daughter Elizabeth (Georgia MacPhail) survive another raid by hiding in an underground dirt bunker that caves in. They manage to stay alive by poking a rifle out from the ground and breathing through its barrel. It’s one of the movie’s handful of truly bravura sequences, fuelled by both claustrophobia and dread. And yet before it gets a chance to really hit you with the force that Costner no doubt intended, he’s already pulled up stakes and moved on to the next location, the next set of characters, the next story line.

Like Gary Cooper, the Old West fits Kevin Costner like a broken-in saddle. Photography: Richard Foreman/Warner Bros.

It ends up being a solid hour into the film before we finally meet Costner’s character, Hayes Ellison — a grizzled horse trader with a drawling rock-tumbler croak. This intro takes place in yet another setting, the Wyoming Territory, where Ellison is immediately beset by a pushy prostitute named Marigold (Abbey Lee), who has a complicated backstory of her own and who quickly sizes him up as a way out of her cruddy, muddy dump of a town. With Costner’s fashionably late arrival, Horizon sparks to life a bit. There’s something nostalgic and comforting about seeing the sixty-nine-year-old actor on the back of a horse (even though I’d take his baseball movies over his westerns any day). He’s one of a very rare breed of true Hollywood movie stars who bring an innate decency and moral clarity wherever he goes. Like Gary Cooper, the Old West fits him like a broken-in saddle.

With all of these characters and locations finally laid out, Costner impatiently crosscuts between them like an overcaffeinated card dealer shuffling a deck for three hours. This makes the movie feel even more like episodic television. A crowded who’s who of dependable character actors (Sam Worthington, Luke Wilson, Michael Rooker, Will Patton, Jena Malone, and Jeff Fahey) come and go much too quickly, like the varmints in a Whac-A-Mole game. Meanwhile, some of these characters are let down by the film’s choppy editing, as several scenes appear to be missing from the movie. In one obvious example, MacPhail’s Elizabeth bids a sentimental goodbye to two young soldiers heading off to war. But we don’t really have a clue how they’re connected. Is she romantically involved with one of them? Are they cousins? Who knows? If they have a backstory, it ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Kevin Costner’s saga—and it really is a saga—kicks off in the San Pedro Valley in 1859, two years before the beginning of the Civil War. Photography: Richard Foreman/Warner Bros.

As Costner’s epic draws to a close, more and more settlers continue to flood into Horizon with their flyers in hand. Meanwhile, each of the film’s story lines builds up to its own cliff-hanger ending, which, as a whole, comes off as a slightly unsatisfying set of ellipses. Costner then closes the film with a lengthy montage of scenes from the already-shot Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 2. It’s a clever idea, but I’m not sure it works. Instead, it feels like it should be introduced by a Sam Elliott voice-over teasing: “Still to come on this season of Horizon…”

While Horizon is, at times, a maddeningly flawed film, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. I don’t know that I’m exactly counting down the days until Chapter 2 hits cinemas in August, but after investing three hours in this journey, I’m not ready to give up quite yet. It’s like getting halfway through a big, fat seven-hundred-page novel that you’re tempted to throw the towel in on but keep plugging away at because you’re curious to see how it ends and what it all adds up to. I’m hoping that after a slightly stumbling start, Costner finds his footing and finishes strong.

Horizon: An American Saga is now in Australian cinemas.

A version of this story originally appeared on Esquire UK.