Take a glance at Jonathan Majors’ eclectic collection of roles, and you’ll find a playwright in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a fighter pilot in the recent “Devotion,” and soon a villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” The versatility at work in his choices speaks of an enviable dramatic range always ripe for a challenge.
But what Majors does in writer-director Elijah Bynum’s “Magazine Dreams” as Killian Maddox, an alarmingly single-minded bodybuilder staring straight into the abyss of his own despair, is the kind of earth-shattering showcase that turns an actor into a legend. His unclassifiable potency leaves us, the audience, to grapple with the fearlessness on display.
Killian’s chiseled body, sculpted from equal parts discipline and consistent steroids use, would astound most people, but the judges at the semiprofessional competitions he enters remain unimpressed. Nor does he fulfill his own vision of perfection molded in the image of champions.
With all-consuming rigorousness, he ingests thousands of calories a day and would, quite literally, rather die than miss one of his strenuous workouts. For Killian, everything — the physical punishment and the substance abuse — is worth it as long as it exists in pursuit of immortality. He yearns to be remembered, to grace the covers of glossy publications so that one day the people who ignored his existence, including the customers at the supermarket where he works, can finally notice him. Nursing these aspirations that border on delusion, he has convinced himself glory is on the horizon.
Under the warm light of chandeliers inside a ballroom, he flexes and poses with all his might, waiting for acknowledgement. But Bynum, and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (“The King”), repeatedly find visuals that contrast Killian’s mirage with reality: an image of Killian’s brain scan first appears as a terrifying, otherworld entity, as if reflecting the turmoil within, and later, streaks of blood float in the water of his bathtub like an eerie spectacle born of pain.
When not directly focusing on Killian’s physique, Bynum reveals the character’s many inadequacies in the failed interactions with those in the periphery of his dream, such as the therapist who treats him in the aftermath of one of many aggressive altercations. During a date with a co-worker, an awkwardly humorous exchange morphs into uncomfortable oversharing on his part. We begin to understand that he sees success in bodybuilding as the key that will grant him acceptance and emotional connection.
Despite dedicating nearly every waking moment to “improving” each muscle, his results remain far from what he desires. Killian writes letters to Brad Vanderhorn (four-time Mr. Universe Michael O’Hearn), his favorite bodybuilder, whose posters decorate his walls, in hopes of getting advice and the validation he so desperately seeks. Still, erratic as Killian’s behavior becomes the more his obsession takes over, he still looks after his unconditionally loving grandfather.
Since this character study addresses an epidemic of profound loneliness among men and the stigma that mental health stills carries as it relates to masculinity, comparisons to “Taxi Driver” or even “Whiplash” will abound. But the fact that Killian is a Black man in America, in a racist society that sees Black men as inherently dangerous, opens a whole other set of predicaments for Bynum to explore.
However, as the filmmaker conceives a comprehensive examination of every factor, internal and external, that afflicts Killian, as well as their possible solutions, “Magazine Dreams” begins to feel convoluted with too many threads to rein in, all of them with relevant themes.
Many of these subplots revolve around Killian expressing frustration and anger against a world that renders him invisible via self-destructive acts, which in turn confront him with police brutality and bigotry. But he also searches for affection in the arms of a sex worker (Taylour Paige) and even engages in a homosexual encounter to try to heal his intimate wounds. Through it all, Majors’ hyper-committed transformation, both physical and within the headspace that he had to inhabit during the brief 26 days of shooting, astonishes.
To witness such a visceral, ticking time-bomb of a performance is to get lost in the engrossing and terrifying beauty of a tornado that shatters everything in its path — not out of malice, but because Killian hasn’t been afforded the tools to learn another way. Majors veers between soft-spoken shyness and indomitable fury to craft the multisided persona of a soul living in perpetual chaos. It’s a truly astonishing, affecting feat.
Remember the scene in “Whiplash” where Miles Teller’s drummer character gets into a car crash, leaves his car behind and makes it to his presentation? Well, Bynum one-ups the scenario having Majors’ Killian endure a brutal beating Before moments later, bleeding profusely, driving himself to his competition and getting onstage only to collapse. Of the numerous episodes in which Killian disregards his bodily well-being — vandalizing a paint shop or cars’ windows — this one epitomizes his fear of rejection with greatest force.
With every segment in Bynum’s impressively executed “Magazine Dreams,” Kilian inches closer to potential gun violence, only for the tension to be diffused time and again in the third act. Bynum achieves an exhausting effect, likely deliberately to place us inside Killian’s tormented psyche, but while one can appreciate that artistic approach, in the end several of its far too many conflicts feel oversimplified.
Still, the film always has Majors on its side, pulling us back in right as we are ready to step away from the intense barrage of rage. Anchored in his greatness, “Magazine Dreams” can get away with most of its flaws.
“Magazine Dreams” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.