Kevin Costner’s Horizon may be ‘dull and incoherent’ – but bad reviews won’t stop Yellowstone fanboys

Reason to smile: Kevin Costner has found enormous small screen success thanks to his Paramount western ‘Yellowstone’  (Paramount)
Reason to smile: Kevin Costner has found enormous small screen success thanks to his Paramount western ‘Yellowstone’ (Paramount)

Whatever happened to Kevin Costner? It’s a question you’d be forgiven for asking if you’ve been staking out your local cinema for the past half-decade. The 69-year-old actor and director, once an American movie star in the truest Jupiterian sense, has barely made a film in years. Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last week, is Costner’s comeback of sorts: his first leading film role since 2020, and his first directorial effort since 2003’s Open Range.

It’s a western, the first of a proposed four-film franchise into which Costner has supposedly sunk nearly $100m of his own money. If there’s a romance to this premise, it seems critics didn’t get the briefing; early previews have seen Costner’s passion project branded “dull” and “incoherent”. Perhaps the most damning epithet to blight any labour of love, “vanity project” has been said of Horizon several times.

But here’s the thing: none of this is likely to matter to Costner one bit. Time was, Costner had the Hollywood critical establishment eating out of his sturdy, calloused hand. In 1991, he won two Oscars for his debut film Dances with Wolves – Best Picture and Best Director – amid a run of acclaimed leading roles in commercially successful movies (JFK; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; The Bodyguard). In recent years, however, he has become known as something of a unilateralist, a man who’s followed the scent of his own curiosities, whether that’s the Old West, or Major League Baseball. Scattershot character roles and foggy turns in superhero blockbusters (Man of Steel) gave way to what is so far the defining work of late-period Costner: TV’s Yellowstone.

Yellowstone is, of course, the real reason Costner has been missing from the multiplexes in recent years. The Paramount drama, a massively popular but critically overlooked modern-day western series, sees the actor play the patriarch of a family of Montana ranchers. Its gargantuan popularity, increasing exponentially with every season since the first hit screens in 2018, is a testament to Costner’s remnant star power, and the appetite that still exists for the kind of traditionally American storytelling he indulges. (The season five premiere got over 12 million viewers – more than four times the peak of Succession.) Between Yellowstone and Horizon, there is no actor on the planet currently doing what Costner is doing in the genre he’s doing it. If Yellowstone is any indicator, the bad reviews for Horizon won’t matter one jot.

There is perhaps a sheen of Big Divorce Energy to Horizon. It’s the sort of atavistic, masculine project that you might expect a sixtysomething newly single ex-A-lister to pursue. This is, however, part of Costner’s appeal. He is a man out of time, a throwback to another, more traditional era of movie stardom. The glaring un-chicness of Horizon, the unabashed classicism of it, belies just how uncommercial a notion it is to mount a big-budget western movie in the year 2024. While a number of auteurs continue to dabble fruitfully in western revisionism – the Coen brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog; S Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk – none, save for Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight; Django Unchained), have found it to be a commercially fruitful enterprise. Costner’s film, a more classically minded oater than these, was a tough sell even before the disdainful reviews.

Look at Yellowstone, though, and suddenly anything seems possible. Yellowstone is sometimes labelled as a “red state show” – ie, a series popular among Republican demographics in the rural regions of the US. Critics have described it as perpetuating “white grievance”; Vulture wrote that Yellowstone’s core ideology was “a desperate and threatened appeal to American identity and white masculinity that makes the Paramount series palpably different from other family rivalry dramas like Billions or Succession”.

Others have singled out Yellowstone’s racial politics and its treatment of Native Americans – something for which series creator Taylor Sheridan has previously been criticised, in his film Wind River and Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which he wrote. (In its early reviews, Horizon has also caught flak for its handling of race, particularly the positioning of Native American attackers as villains.) Yet Yellowstone cannot be simply written off as reactionary hokum. It is a show that does, to some extent, wrestle with contemporary American racism within its own writing. Costner’s conventional brand of onscreen masculinity is never given a political animus; Yellowstone was not intended as some kind of statement against woke. And neither is Horizon.

There’s something vaguely quixotic about the whole Horizon project. With lacklustre reviews pouring in for Chapter 1, Costner is already hard at work on Chapter 3. If these films are to go down in history as a failure, then they are surely a spectacular one – vanity projected in quadruplicate. But for Costner’s fans, and the many quiet devotees of Yellowstone, success is preordained. Just getting these films into cinemas is already a victory. Whether it’s pyrrhic or triumphant, we’re yet to find out.