aTHE STORY – Killian Maddox lives with his ailing veteran grandfather, obsessively working out between court-mandated therapy appointments and part-time shifts at a grocery store where he harbors a crush on a friendly cashier. Though Killian’s struggles to read social cues and maintain control of his volatile temper amplify his sense of disconnection amid a hostile world, nothing deters him from his fiercely protected dream of bodybuilding superstardom, not even the doctors who warn that he’s causing permanent damage to his body with his quest.
THE CAST – Jonathan Majors, Haley Bennett, Taylour Paige, Mike O’Hearn, Harrison Page & Harriet Sansom Harris
THE TEAM – Elijah Bynum (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 124 Minutes
Seldom has anyone looked more like the mythical Atlas than Jonathan Majors on film. With two hundred-something lbs of pure muscle and a ferocious fierceness, he seems ready to carry the entire world upon his shoulder, which is ironic because few movies in recent memory have been carried so extensively solely on the shoulders of a single performance “Magazine Dreams,” the second directorial feature from Elijah Bynum, follows an aspiring bodybuilder named Killian Maddox (Majors), as he pushes himself past his physical and mental limits to achieve greatness, driving himself to madness and maybe something even sinister in the process.
From its opening montage of slow-motion photography set against mournful string music that feels very reminiscent of “Raging Bull,” “Magazine Dreams” continually reminds the viewer of a hodgepodge of better movies that came before it. If you think the description sounds like a male “Black Swan” or another version of “Joker,” you wouldn’t be far off. But the film is not content to just crib from those filmmakers. There is one sequence involving Majors stumbling, injured, and blood-soaked into a competition that bears more than a passing resemblance to a memorable sequence in “Whiplash.” Much of Majors’ arc, going from awkward loner to toying with ideas of domestic terrorism, an unhealthy obsession with a celebrity, and becoming fixated on a prostitute (Taylour Paige), is very similar to “Taxi Driver.” And the edit leading into the film’s final shot seems to be heavily inspired by a recent Best Picture winner (who shall remain nameless to avoid spoilers. Because “Magazine Dreams” pulls so extensively from other films, the viewer essentially knows where Bynum’s story will go beat for beat within the first 30 minutes.
That being said, deriving inspiration from great films isn’t necessarily a bad thing if this new film finds something fresh to say. And there are interesting ideas at play here. “Magazine Dreams” has a lot to say about our fixation and constant validation seeking from role models, eating disorders, mental illness, the homoeroticism inherent in men’s fitness, and, of course, toxic masculinity. Those are topics that other films have explored, but one need only look at the headlines to realize that they warrant further exploration.
And at times, the way “Magazine Dreams” approaches these topics is compelling and disturbing. It is genuinely painful to watch Killian ignore the advice of his doctors and push his body past what is healthy or safe. There are scenes of Killian vomiting and pounding laxatives that are so provocative and difficult to watch. For all of the grueling punishment the film’s lead character is inflicting upon himself and the film is inflicting upon us, it’s still a fully engaging “can’t look away” immersive experience as Majors draws us deeper into Killian’s headspace. An excruciatingly awkward date scene Killian has with a young woman from his local supermarket (Haley Bennett) is one of the film’s high or low points, depending on who you ask, and is sure to join the ranks of cinema history’s worst-ever movie dates. While all of these scenes and singular elements make “Magazine Dreams” sound like a worthwhile experience, the problem is the film is far too long and overstays its welcome, as it finds itself toward the end, hammering some of the same points home again and again. Majors begins his downward spiral early on and then keeps spiraling. The final hour is unfocused and has multiple fake-out endings, which can be frustrating, especially as the film continually builds towards something horrific which may or may not occur. This protracted hour considers taking bold plot directions, but the meandering journey robs the film’s impact.
Jonathan Majors, who has impressed recently in “The Harder They Fall” and “Devotion,” is undeniably jaw-dropping. To the extent the film works, it works because of him. He sheds every ounce of his usual charisma, creating a character who is utterly believable as an awkward incel despite boasting the physique of a Greek god. He somehow manages to be simultaneously pathetic and terrifying, always in command of the audience’s emotions even if Killian is not. Whenever Killian forces a smile, it is chilling beyond words. And no matter how implausible or unfocused the writing Majors is working with may be at times, he sells it with one hundred percent pure commitment. It is the kind of bold, extreme performance that turned actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert De Niro into legends, which is where Jonathan Majors has officially ascended with this towering piece of work.
Director Elijah Bynum brings some attractive craftsmanship to the proceedings. Shots of Killian working out in the gym play with a shallow focus to emphasize his isolation. Even in a gym full of hulking figures, he stands out, alone. Bynum’s use of long takes, one in which Majors receives a brutal beating and one a scene later, where he stumbles, bloody, into a community center for his bodybuilding show, are particularly effective. And the lighting and lens choices for scenes of Majors posing to record a video for any new followers he may receive online manage to make his amazing physique seem almost repulsive.
The film’s score and soundscape put us into Killian’s head effectively and charts his descent into further instability. From the opening sounds onward, there is never any doubt that something awful will happen due to this man’s damaged psyche. The less said about some of the song choices, the better, though. Johnny Cash’s “The Beast in Me” is the least subtle choice of all time for a movie like this.
“Magazine Dreams” can be darkly funny. Whether that was intended is unclear, but it is certainly the kind of film that refuses to look away, regardless of how uncomfortable or tortuous such humor ultimately becomes. But the reason to see it is Jonathan Majors. In what might be the most impressive male performance of the decade so far, he is Arthur Fleck, Travis Bickle, Nina Sayers, and Bane all rolled into one. For all of its flaws, the film would not have worked with a lesser actor. Bynum has some interesting ideas at the forefront of “Magazine Dreams,” and his craftsmanship shows promise in only his second feature film. But the film desperately needs another run in the editing room as that dreadful third act drags on and on. If Bynum is going to pull so extensively from other films to tell a frighteningly relevant story for today, it needs to reframe what it draws more innovatively and uniquely.