Sundance 2023: MAGAZINE DREAMS is a Daring Tour de Force for Majors

Jonathan Majors plays a bodybuilder on the cusp of insanity in an awards-worthy performance.

Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams is a daring outing for its lead.

Magazine Dreams is the latest vehicle for Jonathan Majors, the charismatic young actor who understandably has become somewhat ubiquitous at the multiplex. On my last trip to the local AMC, three out of the five trailers featured the actor who originally caught my eye in his turn on Loki as “He Who Remains.” This film is a rather stark departure from his typical charismatic, heavy turns. It’s a darker film with a more grounded story that sees the actor getting lost in the role of Killian Maddox, an amateur bodybuilder who struggles with mental illness and wants to be seen by those around him. Killian’s dream is to be on the cover of a bodybuilding magazine like his idol Brad Vanderhorn, played here by real life four-time Mr. Universe Michael O’Hearn.

Majors is on full display with a flawless physique; I can only assume it comes from either his MCU turn or his role in the next Creed film. When Killian isn’t at the gym and documenting his weightlifting journey, he’s taking care of his aging veteran grandfather and working at a small grocery store. When we catch up to him, both his body and mind are at a breaking point. Killian’s been an aggressive steroid user and also appears to suffer from a flavor of schizophrenia. This is compounded by constant exhaustion from overexerting and pushing himself for bodybuilding competitions and a severe anger management problem, giving us a recipe for disaster. These factors, combined with the fact that Killian is a Black man on parole, keeps the audience in a constant state of unease.

The script by writer/director Bynum is an intense character study brought to life by Majors, who gives a mesmerizing tour de force performance. Even though on paper, Killian sounds like a monster, Majors makes sure to never lose sight of the character’s battle to retain his humanity. Majors is literally and emotionally naked for the majority of the film, physically and mentally insecure. Killian is a bomb waiting to explode as he tries to reach out to those around him for help, only to scare them away; only the audience sees the man drowning before us. Majors takes the fine-tuned vessel of his body to tell the story of a broken, childlike man. The bodybuilding angle allows Majors and Bynum to dig into topics rarely seen from a male point of view, such as eating disorders and body dysmorphia.

Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (who also lensed True Detective’s first season) helps ground the film in a more gritty reality, while also allowing it to slip into a waking nightmare on a moment’s notice. The way Arkapaw captures Majors as a larger-than-life character also gives him that “main character energy” that only feeds into the delusion that he is the protagonist in this story. This is contrasted with an ethereal score by Jason Hill (Mindhunter) that makes you question the reality you’re seeing and if Killian has finally become untethered from the real world.

Magazine Dreams is an exploration of toxic masculinity, superficiality, mental illness, drug addiction, and how we marginalize those struggling until they can be ignored no longer. The film cements Majors as one of the best working actors today in his terrifyingly transformative take. Like Majors, Bynum isn’t satisfied to give up on Killian or resign his fate like those around him. Magazine Dreams is not an easy watch, but it’s a turn reminiscent of Taxi Driver: As the audience, we are the only ones aware of Killian’s potential and somewhat twisted good intentions.

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