Jonathan Majors - Magazine Dreams
Credit: Glen Wilson/Courtesy of the Sundance Institute
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film

Magazine Dreams — Elijah Bynum [Sundance ’23 Review]

February 4, 2023

Jonathan Majors is poised to become a household name this year, with high-profile roles in upcoming installments of the MCU and extended Rocky franchises due in just the next couple of months. The physically imposing actor is often cast against type in roles that downplay his impressive physique while emphasizing his soft-spokenness or pragmatism, in films such as Da 5 Bloods, the short-lived HBO series Lovecraft Country, or his cocksure charisma as a fictionalized version of the cowboy Nat Love in The Harder They Fall. It’s a credit to Majors, then, that in Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams, he credibly strips away all confidence and charm (as well as most of his clothing) as an amateur bodybuilder consumed by his obsession, lost in his delusions, and ostracized from the world. What remains is his Adonic — yet still wanting by professional bodybuilding standards — build and an absolute void where social graces, a sense of humor, or even a personality would normally reside.

Majors plays Killian Maddox, who, when he’s not caring for his sick grandfather or bagging groceries at work, dedicates himself to building up muscle mass and competing in local competitions, attempting to level up to the regionals and nationals. Killian demonstrates a monastic-like devotion: he consumes tens of thousands of calories a day as part of a high-protein/low-fat-and-sugar diet, misses not a single workout at the gym, and religiously watches old Mr. Olympia VHS tapes in his sad bedroom, papered over with Muscle Man posters. Upon learning that his steroid use has led to the growth of non-cancerous tumors on his liver, Killian shuts down any discussion of surgery: as a bodybuilder, scars would only cost him points.

As the title of the film implies, Killian wants to be famous; as to why someone this painfully shy would subject himself to that sort of scrutiny as well as the literal spotlight (he posts stilted, affirmational flexing videos on YouTube and, predictably, the comment section is not kind) — that’s largely left to the viewer to infer. Perhaps it’s to prove something to the people in his life? Killian has a crush on one of his coworkers (Haley Bennett), but asking her out only leads to a mortifying first date where he sours the mood by blurting out his traumatic family history within minutes of sitting down, before bloviating about his workout regime and ignoring her visible boredom until she simply slips out the back while pretending to go to the restroom. He propositions a sex worker (Taylour Paige, wasted in a nothing part), but bristles at her strictly transactional interest in him. He writes increasingly unhinged letters to his bodybuilding idol (Mike O’Hearn), a character development that only further erodes Killian’s self-esteem when his hero unexpectedly calls him up and asks to meet.

A hulking black man aware of how he’s perceived by others (he reflexively says “sorry” to an older white woman he spots clutching her purse tightly at the store, seemingly apologizing for merely existing) yet prone to poor impulse control and violent public outbursts, Killian begins to draw from a toxic well of resentment and alienation. He desperately wants human connection, even Googling how to get people to like him, but his palpable awkwardness and fits of anger only push people further away, sending the character down a scary path often taken by lonely young men. To that end, the patron saints of Magazine Dreams are filmmakers like Paul Schrader and Darren Aronofsky, the film proudly wearing their influences as inspiration.

It’s a gnashing, disquieting portrait of isolation, male rage, and self-destruction in service of physical transformation, and there’s integrity in its unrelenting gaze at emotional ugliness. As a character study, though, it’s perpetually stuck in neutral. The character lacks interiority, as though Killian doesn’t quite make sense even to himself. Has he transformed himself into a behemoth in response to growing up in a violent household? The signs are present, but this thread remains underdeveloped. Is parading around in his underwear and surrounding himself — both in person as well as in the media he consumes — with oily, half-nude men a manifestation of Killian’s confused sexuality? There’s conflicting evidence on that front, but it’s entirely possible. Magazine Dreams doesn’t exactly provide easy answers, but the problem isn’t that it makes you work for it — it’s that there isn’t much to show for it once the work is done. What remains is a fiercely committed Majors performance in search of a film worthy of it.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 5.