Magazine Dreams review: Elijah Bynum's powerful character study is a volcanic mix of Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta

Published on Jan 23, 2023 07:35 PM IST

Magazine Dreams review: Jonathan Majors delivers the performance of a lifetime as a self-destructing bodybuilder in Elijah Bynum's uncompromising character study. It premiered at the U.S. Dramatic Competition section at Sundance Film Festival.

Jonathan Majors stars as fictional bodybuilder Killian Maddox in Magazine Dreams.
Jonathan Majors stars as fictional bodybuilder Killian Maddox in Magazine Dreams.
BySantanu Das

The opening shots of writer-director Elijah Bynum’s brutal new feature film Magazine Dreams, which marked its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival slowly pans out to show a ripped bodybuilder taking centerstage. The lights from the chandeliers are on him, as he stays a little longer, with his head held down. This is a dream, as we will soon realize, that will become his biggest nightmare. (Also read: Shayda movie review: A powerful semi-autobiographical debut for director Noora Niasari)

Jonathan Majors plays Killian Maddox, a bodybuilder whose only ambition in life is to achieve something that will provide him with some sort of legacy. He wants to be remembered. For him, that can happen by a feature on a fitness magazine. For that, he trains day and night, maintains a strict diet, avoids any kind of junk food, injects steroids and participates in bodybuilding competitions. Yet there's a depth of despair in Killian that stops him from facing the world. The more you want him to sort things out for himself, the more the world turns against him. He is also undergoing court-mandated sessions with a therapist (Harriet Sansom Harris) which tells us that the trouble is lurking right behind the door. Maddox is his own enemy.

Meanwhile he works at the local supermarket where he musters up the courage to ask his friendly coworker (a scene-stealing Haley Bennett) for a date. Their awkward exchange at the inn seems like its the first time he has been able to be away from himself for a while, until he opens up to her about how his father shot himself after killing his mother. Now he lives with his Vietnam war veteran grandfather whom he lovingly calls 'Paw-Paw'. The scene plays out in tight closeup- Adam Arkapaw's cinematography is incredible- and by the time he's done digging into his bodybuilding obsession, she has left through the back door.

Magazine Dreams is an excruciating character study, and will certainly remind you of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Killian Maddox is in many ways, a volcanic mix of Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle and Raging Bull's Jake LaMotta. Yet Killian Maddox is very much his own pumped up antihero--the abject realities of being a Black man in the current society are clear to him as daylight, as much as he is aware of his deteriorating mental health. He is a man with a tragic past, jobless present and an uncertain future. And the more you want him to get it right, the more he tumbles into an unhinged abyss of despair. He doesn't want scars on his body, he says to the doctor midway during diagnosis. His innermost scars are enough. A later scene when he finally confronts the ageing old judge who had once criticized his deltoids--is telling in his vengeful ode to those inner scars.

Bynum, who also wrote Magazine Dreams, conjures up an excruciatingly intense character study that is almost unbearably hard to watch at times. More than the violence, its the anticipation of it that powers the narrative, as Maddox's obsession takes a full swing over him. The last 20 minutes in specific become agonizing to sit through- as Bynum dares the audience to leave his side. It all works because of Jonathan Majors, who gives the performance of a lifetime as Killian Maddox. Just as one begins to wrap their head around the extreme physical commitment Majors brings to this role- he trained for four months, eating over 6,000 calories a day, he astonishes with his acute emotional transparency. There is not a single note that he misses in this selfless, miraculous transformation. Bravo.

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