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‘Magazine Dreams’ review: A story about a troubled, rage-filled bodybuilder excels as Jonathan Majors as it’s leading man

The second feature film from writer/director Elijah Bynum unpacks male fragility, race, and the need for legacy

Sundance

1977’s Pumping Iron provided a thorough insight into the bodybuilding world and almost an insane amount of focus and preparation to look like the personification of what a superhero would be. Everything from types of food, calories, rest, and workouts have to be fine-tuned to the point of controlled chaos. With all this work, it all hinges on a group of judges who might deem that your arms are a smidge too tiny. We speak of focus in a positive term, but what happens when it’s a tool in the mind of an unstable person?

Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) wants to leave an indelible mark on the world that can’t be crossed out. This goal is to be on a bodybuilding magazine cover like his hero Brad Vanderhorn (Michael O’Hearn). So, he commits to focus – eats 6,000 calories a day, trains his body to the maximum, and takes steroids even as they start to shut his organs down. But, it’s all a part of the plan in the quest for a man to find his place in a world he feels invisible. Writer/director Elijah Bynum makes sure he highlights the juxtaposition of Killian’s imposing physical strength against the many inner battles he’s going up against.

He has to take care of his sick Vietnam War veteran grandfather, whom he’s been living with. There’s also the perception around him being his size coupled with being a Black man in California. In one of the opening scenes, Killian expresses his anger about going five miles to the nearest grocery store because his neighborhood is a food desert. So, older white women look at him as afraid in the store he works. Police tail him as he’s going for a run. This is all happening as he’s bottling up the tragedy that happened with his parents when he was younger and a thirst for some human connection. Killian writes letters to Brad throughout the film with the hopes of acknowledgment like a child pen pal coupled with a sense of thoughtfulness.

Unfortunately, if trauma is not addressed and healed, the person may stay in that moment. Killian feels he has to get that one piece of recognition – in some ways, you can’t blame him. The world itself tells us that an easygoing life might not be the most fulfilling next to one of fame and fortune. But life’s wants could be as simple as somebody wanting to know they matter. Majors portrayal of Killian, grouped with Bynum’s writing of the character, makes you hold some empathy for him. He’s so strong in his convictions to get that poster, but can’t quite crack the code on the ultimate endgame of what he wants – acceptance through the cloud of male fragility.

In one sequence of scenes, Killian expresses that he likes a store clerk named Jessie (Haley Bennett) with a vulnerability that he quickly retreats from because of how it makes him feel. When they go out, he immediately goes into bodybuilder mode – ordering a plethora of food and delivering an intensity about his mission that scares Jessie off. Later, he meets a sex worker (played by Taylour Paige), and there’s a tangible want to go beyond that service, but he’s too shy to go through with it. Unfortunately, a comment from a judge about his deltoids is the one that constantly plays in his head over and over.

Magazine Dreams invokes many of the devices utilized in Taxi Driver and Whiplash about devotion to one's craft, but a wave of anger protruded outward to the world. Majors gives it his all – both in his training for the role and the range of emotions, he invokes. Each scene until the film's last part is a natural occurrence of kinetic energy. As life puts the thumb on the scale, Killian’s fall from grace becomes more pronounced. A man who seemed like he’s been chiseled from stone has to contend that strength derives from more than a rack of weights—even his former Mr. Olympian worship is rife with complications.

Bynum ultimately lets scenes unveil themselves naturally, allowing Majors to take them to another level. Throughout Magazine Dreams, Killian types in searches such as “how do you get people to like you.” Because Killian is akin to going from one self-destructive parable to the next, the film doesn’t settle on explaining that mental health journey. Instead, it shows you how the lack of can be susceptible to terrible ideologies. That’s what we’ve seen both in real life and throughout cinema.

Rather than going scorched earth, Magazine Dreams perhaps ends on a hopeful note. The quest to build a legacy and self-esteem can be long and weary. They aren’t mutuality exclusive in the way that you think. Perhaps you don’t have to make the Eiffel Tower for people to remember you, but knowing who you are is a start. We’ve been there. You’ll leave the film wanting Killian to find this for himself.