DISCLAIMER: The following review contains minor spoilers for Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams

How far would you go to accomplish your dreams? Filmmaker Elijah Bynum explores this and more in his second feature, Magazine Dreams, starring Jonathan Majors as the incredibly dedicated but troubled bodybuilder Killian Maddox. Killian cares for his ill veteran grandfather while working part-time at a grocery store and attending court-mandated therapy sessions to work through his anger. He rigorously trains for bodybuilding competitions and frequently pens letters to his bodybuilding idol. 

However, Killian struggles to keep a lid on his volatile temper, and his doctor urges him to stop putting his body through the wringer because it’s causing potentially irreparable damage. Despite this warning, Killian pushes himself beyond the limit. As they say, “pride comes before the fall.” 

Magazine Dreams also features Haley Bennett as Killian’s co-worker and crush, Taylour Paige as Pink Coat, Harriet Sansom Harris as Killian’s therapist, Harrison Page as Killian’s grandfather, William Lattimore, and Michael O’Hearn as Brad Vanderhorn, Killian’s bodybuilding idol. Bynum directs from his script. 

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Jonathan Majors delivers a career-best performance. His transformation — physically, emotionally, vocally and mentally — is jaw-dropping. The intricate, nuanced work he puts into Killian is undeniable. Magazine Dreams solidifies Majors as a definitive awards season frontrunner come next year. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Even when he wasn’t speaking, much of his performance was nonverbal. He made the most of the moments between the lines. 

As you’d expect from a film about a male bodybuilder, Magazine Dreams deftly tackles toxic masculinity with blistering verve. It addresses societal obsession with physical perfection. We see Killian incessantly pick himself apart and hone in on a judge’s remarks years ago about his “small” deltoids. The movie delves into Killian’s inner life, namely his unexplored sexuality.

While he goes on a date with his female co-worker, it’s clear Killian harbors an unacknowledged (on his part) attraction to men. He has posters of bodybuilders plastered on his walls. He writes unanswered letters to Brad Vanderhorn and watches VHS tapes of his competitions. Then, when he finally meets Brad, the sexual tension between them is hilariously awkward. Killian eventually acts on his attraction and is disappointed when Brad ghosts him in the aftermath. Brad takes advantage of his celebrity status in that regard. 

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Besides the themes of sexuality and toxic masculinity, Magazine Dreams brilliantly dives into racism and mental health, particularly for Black men. The two go hand-in-hand as Killian has run-ins with the law that showcase the abhorrent racism from the cops who brutalize him. Killian’s therapy sessions hit a brick wall. He emphatically denies and lies through them, burying his head in the sand regarding his unprocessed childhood trauma and grief. It’s heartbreaking. Yet no one genuinely tries to lend a hand in a meaningful way. 

Jonathan Majors plays Killian Maddox, who poses on a dimly lit stage as a bodybuilder in the film Magazine Dreams.

Pictured: Jonathan Majors as Killian Maddox in MAGAZINE DREAMS

Killian is desperate for human connection. The film highlights Killian’s numerous attempts to connect, from his posting YouTube videos explaining the ins and outs of bodybuilding (which are met with vitriol from internet trolls) to his finding solace in Paige’s Pink Coat, a sex worker. And, of course, his infatuation with Brad, resulting in him telling others they’re friends in real life. That desperation is relatable, even though Killian takes it too far. Life can get lonely when you feel like an island. 

Magazine Dreams maintains an even keel on the pacing front from beginning to end. There are no lags. It’s a film full of narrative surprises for the lead character’s inner life and the external pressures around him. Adam Arkapaw’s fluid, seamless cinematography contributes to the several tense scenes in the story, immersing us and keeping us on the edge of our seats. Jason Hill’s unsettling score punctuates those strained moments perfectly. 

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The movie occasionally crosses into thriller territory, and the script keeps a brisk yet frenetic pace in these moments. One particular scene follows Killian after a few men beat him up. He attends a bodybuilding competition while looking worse for the wear. He refuses to see a doctor, instead strolling on stage to compete. It’s chilling, with Majors delivering haunting work. 

What’s lovely about the white-knuckled scenes is that Bynum doesn’t take the predictable approach. I couldn’t envision the outcomes for said scenes — my predictions were always wrong. These moments are delightfully surprising and engrossing.

Bynum ensures Killian, as a character, is handled with the utmost care. He never approaches our lead from a judgmental standpoint but one of grace and understanding. Couple that with Majors’ layered performance, and it’s easy to empathize with Killian. We root for him from the opening sequence. 

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Magazine Dreams is a poignant, powerful and compelling story with outstanding work from Jonathan Majors. He’s a tour de force and is well-deserving of the critical acclaim he’s receiving at Sundance. Elijah Bynum crafts a dark, disturbing, timely narrative that holds you in its thrall and doesn’t let go until long after the credits roll. It’s damn entertaining.

You can stream Magazine Dreams by purchasing single tickets on the Sundance virtual platform until January 29, 2023, at 11:55 pm MST. 

This review was originally published on 1/25/22.


Melody McCune
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