‘Magazine Dreams’ Sundance Film Festival Review: Jonathan Majors does all the heavy lifting in bodybuilding psychodrama

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Magazine Dreams is a drama and second feature film directed by Elijah Bynum, starring Jonathan Majors, Haley Bennett, Taylor Paige and Harrison Page

The movie opens with a beautiful shot of Killian Maddox (Majors) showing off his chiseled physique under an orange shade of light as if he were at a bodybuilding competition. This is overlaid in a voiceover of him having a conversation with his therapist who is having a conversation about his erratic behavior after a hospital stay. Killian takes training very seriously and uses steroids to get the perfect body. He appears to be on the ASD spectrum and writes letters to his favorite bodybuilder Brad Vanderhorne (Michael O’Hearn) hoping to hear from him. He has no friends, only his grandfather (Page) whom he takes care of. There’s Jessica (Bennett), a woman at the local grocery store with whom he has a crush. He asks her out, but before she responds he runs away because Killian fears rejection.

It is clear that this man longs to bond with other people, but his behavior is obnoxious and verging on creepy. Prone to violent outbursts, he destroys a local paint store for not coming to repaint his grandfather’s house. After escaping the scene, Killian gets into a car accident, and discovers that the steroids have created tumors in his liver and are causing other organs to shut down. Knowing this information, he still refuses to be treated. His pursuit to win his upcoming bodybuilding championship will come by any means necessary. Even if it means ruining every relationship or dying in the process.

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Magazine Dreams is a deeply disturbing character study of mania. The audience is forced to watch every excruciating moment of an emotional breakdown that is depressing to watch. Killian is so disconnected from reality that his attempts to connect with it meet with disaster. He lies to himself and to others, and is angry that the world ignores his existence. He is beaten down by the world and keeps his feelings bottled up. Instead of expressing himself honestly, he takes it out on his environment and destroys everything in his wake.

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I’ve heard rumblings of people comparing this to Martin Scorceses’ Cab driverbut to me it looks like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible man. The book follows a black man as he navigates and fails various factions of American society. It is this failure that causes him to retreat inwards. Would have been great if Magazine Dreams was simpler and more coherent than Ellison’s book. There are several times when I thought the movie was going to end, but it goes on and on. This exhausted me because this movie is brutal in its brutality and this treatment of this person who just wants to be heard. It is this treatment and invisibility that have made him a furious pariah.

Jon Otazua’s edit is off-hook, but it serves a great purpose in showing us just how far Killiam is from the real world, and it’s purposely hard to keep up with. However, this does not always serve the story. There are a lot of fade-to-black moments that made me think the movie was finally over, but it went on and on. Instead of anticipating the next scene, I started wishing for an ending. Not because the movie is bad, or boring, but such an intense and exhausting experience.

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Jonathan Majors is a revelation. It’s hard to take your eyes off him, the character demands it and the audience will be mesmerized by it. The Killum Maddox is the type of characterization usually reserved for white male actors. There are plenty of movies about male loneliness, but something about his mannerisms and even vocal intonation is something I haven’t seen many black actors portray. It’s the other characters that are tricky, like Bennett as this healthy caste woman and Taylor Paige as a sex worker. Both characters could have been cut out because we don’t need them to tell us how unprepared he is for relationships with women. The public can see that for themselves.

For the largest part, Magazine Dreams is engaging and Majors does all the heavy lifting. It’s worth seeing for its performance alone.