Sundance Review: Jonathan Majors Is Here to Pump You Up and Bum You Out in Magazine Dreams

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This review is part of our coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

The Pitch: Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) wants one thing, and one thing only: To be remembered. Following in the footsteps of his idols (including one he writes to regularly, played by four-time Mr. Universe Michael O’Hearn), he’s committed himself to bodybuilding, shoving down 6,000 calories of chicken breast and pumping iron morning, noon, and night.

He practices his poses in front of cameras, molds his physique to near perfection, rips through steroids like they’re Diet Cokes. He chugs protein shakes while watching porn, but doesn’t masturbate — whether that’s due to steroid-induced impotence or some unstated facets of his sexuality, we don’t yet know. He competes in amateur bodybuilding competitions, but judges always find one muscle group or another to criticize, which he then attacks with desperate, singular vigor.

Even when we first meet him in Elijah Bynum‘s sophomore feature (the first was the Timothee Chalamet-starring Hot Summer Nights), Killian’s already a man on the brink. He’s shy, withdrawn, but prone to violent fits and is already under the supervision of a concerned therapist (Harriet Sansom Harris). He has no friends, and his grocery store coworkers (save for one nice girl, played by Haley Bennett) and customers look right through him. All he has, all he can control, is his body. And even that is reaching its limits, which will send him spiraling down darker and darker paths.

Playing in the Majors: Cinematic studies in obsession and ambition are nothing new. Save for the bodybuilding angle, there’s a lot in Magazine Dreams that’ll look familiar to folks who’ve seen everything from Whiplash to Pumping Iron, character studies about people who commit themselves to a singular goal as a way of being remembered, no matter the cost in every other area of their lives.

Bynum’s feature exists comfortably within this territory, but it’s more all-encompassing than that: Bodybuilding is our entry point, but through that lens we’re treated to a study in isolation, radicalization, and the slow chipping away of a man’s soul through the masculine codes that strip away his support systems. Killian’s room is painted with bodybuilding posters, aspirational portraits of impossible physique that it’s difficult, if not deeply unhealthy, to realize. And yet, this is precisely what he’s going to do, even as steroids rip through his liver and a lifetime of frustrations turn his brain into a maladjusted soup.

On top of all that, Killian’s Blackness is tackled head-on, albeit in a way that makes it feel like just one more log added to the funeral pyre of his psyche. The bigger (and, thanks to his ‘roids, the angrier) he gets, the more his Blackness becomes a liability. White customers glare at him at the grocery store, irate contractors beat him and call him an “ape,” and incidents with the police go as violently as you could imagine.

Killian tries to pump his way through all of that pain, leading to some of the film’s most arresting sequences — including one where he races to a competition, blood still streaming from his face after a beating, desperate to perform. As hard as his life is, he wants to belong. He wants to be loved, and wants all his work to be rewarded. Because no matter how good he looks, he simply can’t love himself. Bynum’s approach to this element of Killian’s psyche is interesting, but doesn’t get the same sense of completion as everything else.

God Help the Beast In Me: That gulf between reality and self-perception proves some of Magazine Dreams‘ most effective elements, especially as the rest of the cast, all in relatively minor roles, step back to let Majors and his body do the talking. In the opening minutes, The King cinematographer Adam Arkapaw introduces him to us backlit against amber stage lights, every rippled muscle and drop of sweat on display for our consumption. It’s an intentionally eroticized image, fetishizing Majors’ Black body and inviting us to consume it exactly the way he wants. But then we figure out just how unhappy Killian is with it, how much he and society at large scrutinizes it, and it opens up Bynum to take his protagonist on a much more destructive journey in the film’s slightly less successful latter half.

As Killian suffers one disappointment after another — from a disastrous, oversharing date with Bennett’s character to the sexually-confusing dynamic that develops between him and his physical idol — the film suddenly turns towards more violent, Taxi Driver territory, which would be far more interesting if the film had the space to explore those elements. Majors handles these changes capably, calibrating the same shark-eyed dedication he takes to weightlifting as he does to making scenes at diners or fantasizing about punishing those who’ve made him feel less than. But he’s doing a lot of the script’s heavy lifting, especially as the climax builds to something as overlong as it is anticlimactic.

The Verdict: At times, Magazine Dreams feels as juiced and overstuffed as its protagonist, packed to the gills with Things to Say about bodybuilding, masculinity, loneliness, and Blackness in America, and not quite having the road to deal with all of these issues in enough detail. But for all its unrelenting grimness, it’s impossible to look away from Majors’ incredible, titanic performance — every downcast glance, every nervous grin through blood-soaked teeth, every rabid bark of his frustrated outbursts is completely and totally gripping.

It’s the kind of role that requires the level of commitment Killian takes towards his bodybuilding, the surefire sign of a star on the rise. And if the last four years since his Sundance breakthrough with The Last Black Man in San Francisco isn’t evidence enough, this showcase certainly makes the case.

Where to Watch: Magazine Dreams premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. No theatrical release date has been set.

Sundance Review: Jonathan Majors Is Here to Pump You Up and Bum You Out in Magazine Dreams
Clint Worthington

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