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Magazine Dreams (Sundance) Review

Magazine Dreams offers Jonathan Majors a show stopping, meaty role, in a nihilistic drama that’s bound to provoke strong reactions.

PLOT: An amateur bodybuilder (Jonathan Majors) struggles with severe psychological issues while dreaming of stardom.

REVIEW: Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams offers star Jonathan Majors his meatiest role to date. Undergoing a massive transformation that saw him change his body into that of a professional-level bodybuilder, his Killian Maddox is reminiscent of the roles Robert De Niro famously played by Martin Scorsese. Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy both famously inspired Todd Phillips’ Joker (we recently did a Face Off comparing Joker to Taxi Driver), and Bynum’s inspirations seem similar. Yet, as often as we’ve seen this type of role played by white actors, it’s relatively rare for a black actor to dig his teeth into material like this. His race shakes up the formula, making the character a distinct creation for Bynum and Majors.

magazine dreams review

Indeed, Killian Maddox is a layered guy. Incredibly troubled, he struggles to make any human connection beyond his grandfather, an ailing veteran he takes care of. He’s prone to fits of rage, with him in court-mandated therapy sessions after threatening to break open an intake nurse’s head and eat her brain. While he’s never gotten physically violent, he always seems on the cusp of doing something terrible, but he tries to control himself. He puts all his focus on turning himself into the perfect physical specimen, hoping to become a bodybuilding superstar, while writing adoring letters to his idol, a champion weight lifter whose pictures adorn his wall.

Bynum puts us inside Maddox’s head right from the first frame, and it’s not always a comfortable place to be. Every interaction he has seems to go awry, with a setpiece depicting the ultimate date from hell when he goes out with the pretty supermarket cashier (Haley Bennet) he has a crush on. The film is frightening in that it sets us up to anticipate a significant act of violence from Maddox, especially when he starts building himself an armory and has encounter after encounter go awry – often resulting in violence. He has no impulse control; throughout the film, you expect Maddox to finally crack, as in Taxi Driver or Joker, in a climactic act of violence.

Yet, Bynum understands that we expect his movie to follow these familiar beats, so he subverts them. While almost nihilistic in its depiction of the world Maddox lives in, there’s enough shading to Majors’ role that we hope against hope that Maddox will pull himself together – more than we ever did for Travis Bickle or The Joker.

Majors is stunning in the movie, with him simultaneously able to win your empathy and inspire fear – often within the same scene. He’s supported by a dynamic supporting cast, many of whom have small roles but are tremendously effective. Bennett evokes a lot of tenderness on her part as the cashier who, against all odds, finds his shyness charming and can’t help but be attracted to his size. Taylour Paige has one scene as a prostitute he winds up with and subverts audience expectations by presenting her as a character with agency who, as weird as he is, isn’t scared by Maddox but rather pities him. Real-life bodybuilder Michael O’Hearn plays the star Maddox looks up to. In contrast, Harrison Page, who memorably played Jean-Claude Van Damme’s sidekick in Lionheart, has a gem of a role as Maddox’s good-natured grandfather.

Like Bynum’s previous film, Hot Summer Nights, the soundtrack is full of inspired selections, with perhaps the film’s most arresting sequence scored by Patty Smith’s “Because the Night.” The cinematography is less stylized here than in his last film, and the pace is less frenetic. It’s a massive step up for him as a filmmaker, even if the finale suffers from a few too many false endings.

Magazine Dreams is the kind of film that will likely inspire a lot of discourse, with the buzz out of Sundance being overwhelmingly positive, although the nihilism did rub some the wrong way. It’s a tough watch, but sometimes films like this are essential. Hopefully, the right distributor picks this up and gives it the rollout it deserves, as Majors is award-worthy.


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