Right as we are introduced to Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors), he is beyond frustrated with the world around him. In a session with his appointed counselor (Harriet Sansom Harris), Killian expresses to her how upset he is over the fact that the closest grocery store in his area is six miles away from his home. Everything around him is fast food, pointing to how our society has a different standard of living healthy for people of color as opposed to the accessibility of healthy options for white communities. With this angst lies specific reasoning because junk food isn’t in keeping with Killian’s lifestyle, as he dreams of becoming a professional bodybuilder. From this moment, we get a glimpse of what will become a tantalizing, mesmerizing performance by Majors in writer-director Elijah Bynum’s second feature, Magazine Dreams. He is measured and calculated when he speaks, knowing his anger could go off at any moment but he is doing the best he can to keep it all in.
Major’s physic is immaculate as Killian must maintain a certain physical condition for his competitions. His goal is to get his face on the magazine covers like his idols, whose posters hang on his bedroom wall and videotapes he watches on constant repeat. While he is in competition, he works at the same grocery store he is infuriated with and lives at home with his elderly grandfather. His life hasn’t been the easiest as his parents died when he was a young boy, with his father killing his mother and then killing himself. Haunted by these traumatic events, he channels all of that pain into the heavy weights he lifts at his local gym. As he is pumping iron, he screams with alarming vigor after every rep, releasing the lingering pain he carries with him every single day of his life. Moreover, the film showcases how he is socially awkward and doesn’t have friends, hinting at deeper physiologic problems he is dealing with, making him unpredictable in every interaction we see him have.
As he is slowly unraveling, Killian’s dream turns into an obsession quickly, as he is making videos in his garage, trying to get the perfect sequence to upload on YouTube, and recording for hours on end. He eats thousands of calories a day and sits in front of the television watching competitions of his idol, Brad Vanderhorn (Mike O’Hearn). In studying Brad’s body and moves on stage, he starts writing him letters as if they are already friends, giving every detail of his life to this imaginary relationship as real as it can be, with the letter becoming darker and darker with each correspondence. His meticulous examination of Brad has mixed effects when he is in his competition, as his poses and smile look extremely uncomfortable. And as he pushes himself to each limit to create the perfect body, Killian’s steroids and intense workout routines cause him to full blown collapse and push him over the edge, transforming into an unprecedented danger to himself and everyone around him.
Jonathan Majors, known for being one of the most committed new performers we have working today, completely dives into Killian and brings this menacing character to life. Much has been made about the first image released for the film and how you can see this body transformation by Majors but it is another to see the detection he put into action in the film. But what Majors adds to Magazine Dreams is the level of intensity you need to fear yet connect with to keep engaged with Killian’s actions. On one hand, he’s hostile and vindictive to those who wrong him, like a group of painters who don’t complete the job they did for his grandfather. On the other hand, he is soft spoken, shy, and willing to connect with Jesse (Haley Bennett), a cashier at Killian’s work. At almost every turn, you can’t help but root for Killian, and this is all due to Majors’ titanic performance, as he keeps you engaged with every decision he is making.
Beyond the performance though, Magazine Dreams does suffer from being a film that is speaking to an issue (toxic masculinity, incels) that we’ve seen covered dozens of times and yet has nothing new to say. As the film’s events unfold, one’s mind tends to lean to think of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Lauren Hadaway’s The Novice, and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. Each of these titles showcases a lead performance of an obsessed based individual that disregards everything around them in order to reach their goals, even if that leads to violent ends, in the case of Scorsese’s masterpiece. They also add something more about power dynamics, class structure, or the overall society their characters live in and have deeper meanings than what is on the surface level. In Magazine Dreams, Killian’s actions and emotions are fletched out enough throughout the film and that is where Bynum’s screenplay fails to say anything interesting about either the bodybuilding world, the conditions it takes for individuals to join it, and the empty feelings Killian has about the world he lives in. Even when he tries to take Killian down unexpected or subversive avenues, he pulls back from going down that road all the way and is unwilling to take Killian to places we haven’t seen before in films like this.
Alongside the screenplay, issues also lie in editing and direction decisions that allow the film to linger longer than it needs to. In a world where directors are allowed to have runtimes that are out of control, Magazine Dreams needed to be dialed back beyond its multiple fake outs and endings to allow for an overall better tonal and cohesive film.
In repeating a lot of similar beats from scene to scene, the film overstays its welcome and becomes a bit bloated in the third act. Bynum, whose first film Hot Summer Nights showed a lot of directional promise while being weak narratively, seems to have lost a little of that flare that set that dramedy had by directing another film that leans on its influences without feeling the writer-director was saying anything himself. With that said, Majors’s dynamic commitment to bringing Killian to life makes this experience worth it in the end because you can’t take your eyes off the screen. But when someone is working this hard to keep everything together, it is a shame to see everything around them not be on the same level.
Magazine Dreams is screening in the U.S. Dramatic section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute | Glen Wilson