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‘Magazine Dreams’ Review: Jonathan Majors Explodes in a Deeply Unsettling Character Study

Sundance: The soon-to-be Marvel star is jaw-dropping in Elijah Bynum's wrenching drama, but that leaves big shoes for everything else to fill.

“Magazine Dreams”

courtesy of Sundance Institute

When “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” arrives in theaters next month, millions of movie-goers are going to get very hip, very fast to the incredible talents of actor Jonathan Majors, who kicks off what is currently set as a three-movie run in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the February sequel. Stragglers can catch him in March when he costars in Michael B. Jordan’s “Creed III.” Everyone else — the people who have known and loved him since “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” or “Lovecraft Country” or even the recent “Devotion” — will just have to share him with the late-comers.

And Majors is, no pun intended, a major star already, and one clearly driven to take big-time risks, as he’s done with Elijah Bynum’s “Magazine Dreams,” a nerve-shredding character study that has already drawn copious comparisons to no less than “Taxi Driver.” But it’s hard to imagine Travis Bickle ever embracing even a quarter of the control, drive, and determination that we see from Majors’ Killian Maddox in the film’s first act. Control is at the center of Killian’s primary obsession: to become a bodybuilding star, the kind that graces the covers of, yes, magazines.

He eats 6,000 calories a day. He never misses a workout. He injects himself with all manner of dangerous drugs. Becoming a champion is, as he repeatedly announces, the most important thing he will ever do. While some of his other interests run in tandem with bodybuilding — like his one-sided pen pal-ship with his favorite bodybuilding champion — others speak to a world outside of the sport. Like the crush he has on his grocery store co-worker Jesse (Haley Bennett, underutilized, like many of Majors’ other co-stars), or his desire to care for his beloved Paw-Paw (William Lattimore), the last member of a family we learn was long ago blown apart. Some, however, are beyond his control, like the meetings he has to take with a social worker (Harriet Sansom Harris) who was assigned to him after a terrifying incident in which his rage, always just boiling under the surface, slipped out.

Control, that’s what Killian needs, and that’s what bodybuilding brings to him. Bynum, who also wrote the film’s script, builds a crumbling world around Killian, always threatening to break in, from the crime spree that keeps sucking up the nightly news or the rude house painters who don’t do a good enough job on Paw-Paw’s house or his damn legs that won’t grow no matter how much he works on them or the white ladies who turn away from his massive frame in fear.

There’s so very much wrong in the world, and that Killian has rage in response to it, well, frankly, that seems damn understandable. Bodybuilding is an outlet, a focus, a singular pursuit, but once all those other forces and disappointments irreparably harm Killian’s dreams, there’s nothing left to keep him at bay. No one is safe, least of all Killian.

As mistakes and missteps and pain continues to pile on to Killian, Majors turns an already wonderfully empathetic and deeply touching performance into something much more brutal, something explosive, something truly shocking. (An unexpectedly varied soundtrack and Adam Arkpaw’s immersive cinematography only further the discomfort.) Killian’s inner demons would be enough to fell most men, but Bynum also layers on worries about racism, sexual identity, mental health, financial insecurity, and so much more. Even Killian might not be up for the task, but Majors surely is.

In introducing the film at its Sundance premiere, Bynum told the crowd that the film shot in just 24 days, a tight fit for any indie, and a feat all the more remarkable when you consider the incredible swings that Majors had to make in just three weeks. But while Majors’ focus is strong enough to maintain throughout the film, other elements aren’t nearly as up to snuff. The film’s ending rankles, not just because Bynum cycles through approximately ten different possible conclusions before landing on one (which makes the film’s final act feel nearly twice as long), the one he does settle on feels far too pat for such an otherwise daring story. By tackling so many big issues, many are left unanswered and undercooked (Killian’s mental health, first and foremost, seems deserving of far deeper exploration).

But what Majors does here, how raw and vulnerable and brave he is not just with his craft, but his very body, is something to behold. This is true artistry, absolute commitment, the kind of profound self-control that Killian himself could only dream of seeing through. For Majors, it’s simply the next step in a career on the rise. How lucky we are all to be along for this particular ride, how lucky to see the next big swing.

Grade: B

“Magazine Dreams” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution. 

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