Best Of Sundance 2023: Magazine Dreams Is A Towering Jonathan Majors Achievement

Best Of Sundance 2023: Magazine Dreams Is A Towering Jonathan Majors Achievement

America's largest indie film festival is upon us. Gayle Sequeira keeps track of the films that deserve a spotlight

Magazine Dreams opens with a low-angle shot of bodybuilder Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors), towering and impossibly chiseled, bathed in the hazy glow of stage lighting. Discipline and a single-minded focus have turned his body into steel. The next 124 minutes reveal that his mind is far more fragile. 

When the film begins, a past incident of violence has resulted in Killian now having to attend court-mandated therapy. He’s careful not to raise his voice. His hands are gentle as he takes care of his grandfather, gently toweling him off after a bath. A cute cashier at the grocery store he works at reduces him to a shy mess. But what does it mean to have a body that hasn't known any sensation but pain? To be so fixated on your goal that love or affection have had no room to seep in? Majors imbues Killian with the physicality of a wounded animal, one that yearns for a comforting touch and yet is unable to trust, prone to lash out at anyone who gets too close. 

The film envisions bodybuilding as a Sisyphean task, in which picking up a weight is akin to rolling a boulder up a hill for all eternity. For every shot of Killian on a competition stage, there are several of him splayed out on a floor. At some point, passion has turned into punishing obsession. In one scene, he holds a pose as tears stream down his face from the strain. When he collapses later, during a self-recorded performance, the camera, with its unblinking yellow light, appears to be mocking him. In a series of voiceovers right out of Eminem’s Stan video, he writes increasingly desperate letters to an idol he aspires to meet. As he composes one, the crumpled sheets on his table tell us this isn’t his first draft. 

Best Of Sundance 2023: Magazine Dreams Is A Towering Jonathan Majors Achievement
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Killian’s profession has meant a lifetime of putting himself on display and now the film traces just how people might view him. A White woman shifts away from him imperceptibly at the grocery store, switching her bag to the shoulder away from him. Cop cars slow to a crawl as they pass. Killian’s own self-image is twisted beyond repair. When the camera glides over the posters of bodybuilders plastered over his room and his ceiling, it creates the impression that he’s just longing to take his place up there with them. Despite his imposing stature, Killian is not a man who has ever felt in command. All he wants is to be recognised, and yet a self-perception built upon a foundation of insecurities doesn’t allow him to let in the people who might truly see him. On a date, he drones on and on about how he wants people to notice him, lacking the self-awareness to realise that until then, he had a woman’s undivided attention. 

This character study of a man driven to despair by isolation echoes Taxi Driver (1976), particularly during scenes in which Killian drives around, taking in the many ways the city has failed its people. Its familiar themes of mental health, professional rejection and loneliness are handled with a lot more sensitivity than the ineffectual Joker (2019). The cruelties Killian inflicts on his body mirror the exacting drive of an Aronofsky character, the director’s influence never more apparent than in the film’s Black Swan-esque ending. But writer-director Elijah Bynum zooms out to consider how a single man’s spiral of self-destruction might be a starting point to reckon with the idea of the American dream itself. With care, he etches the cycles of violence that Killian is trapped within — racial, gendered, even generational, stretching back to a grandfather who fought in the Vietnam war and a father who committed acts of gun violence. This is a man corroded by what he consumes. Drugs have ruined his body, television bodybuilding specials that have warped his mind. The quest for physical perfection has left him with indelible mental scars. The source of Killian’s rage is not the belief that he’s owed something, but his helplessness at building up the courage to reach out and then find nothing within grasp. The injustices that fuel him aren’t perceived slights, but systemic and institutional rots, in Bynum’s empathetic script.

With agonising slowness, he lays out exactly how a story like this might end, which then makes the rest of the film almost unbearably fraught. The last stretch of Magazine Dreams becomes increasingly fragmented as Killian’s mind deteriorates, a series of endings and alternate endings composed of elaborate revenge fantasies that he stops short of turning into an ill-fated reality. The pace and length might start to feel as grueling as one of his many workouts but in his phenomenal performance of a man who just wants to be seen, Majors ensures that we can’t look away.

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